I had the temerity and largess to believe that writing about the Communicative Approach to Training Theory would be simple.  Repeat, “had”.  I no longer  entertain such a delusion.   The approach itself seems simple to me, emphasizing relationship and observation in whatever training method you choose.  But when I began my post entitled, “Communicating with Calming”, things got complicated. Small details, needing explanation, were tumbling out like ball-bearings from a carelessly bumped Big Gulp cup.  What to do, what to do…

  You will get to read that post about being “Calm during Training”, (Warning Cesar Bashers: I’m going to discuss your Energy.)  But, I’m adding a pre-amble to it.  The two biggest subjects involve “Engagement with your Dog” (discussed here), and “Fear and Communication. (Still in development).  Let’s get started…

“You HAVE my attention…”

Having been married for a bit more than 25 years, I will occasionally fall victim to holding conversations with my dear wife that I’m not really engaged in.  They may, or may not sound something like this:

“This room needs a makeover.  A bit more color, maybe a new couch.  What do you think of a splash of Aqua?” CarolAnn will ask.

“Mmmmmm…that would be fine.” I’ll mumble.

” We should paint before winter too…”

” Okay…Where’s my laptop?”

” Did you hear what I said?

“”Uh, yeah…I’d love to go have Chicken wings later.”

“You didn’t hear me!  I didn’t mention Chicken Wings…”

“I think the batteries in this remote must be dying…”

“I’m going to Home Depot…”

“Why are you going to  Home Depot?”

By the way gentleman, if this has happened to you, I recommend wearing a helmet.  Full- time…

If you and your dog have a system of communication that approaches this level, you need help.  No, you need a hamster.   But,  I’ve seen this happen to some very fine Canine/Handler teams in the field and in competition.  Both individuals would have momentary lapses in communication, and one or the other would stall.  In the least of circumstances, points are lost.  In the worst case, the scent of the missing would be lost.  Then both parties become frustrated, confused, or even angry.  That emotional trinity is a sure-fire way to cause problems.  This is why Focus and Engagement,are absolutely necessary for the Communicative Approach.

Engagement first came to my attention early in my training with Hans.  We were working with Mr. Corey Dewberry of Columbus, Ohio.  Corey is a trainer that works with family pets, Schutzhund competitors, and the Protection Sports Association.  He has a lengthy resume’ with Law Enforcement K-9’s as well.  In his training, he pays close attention to reading the dogs reactions, body-language, and eye-contact.  He pointed out every flick of an ear, blink of an eye, tongue flick…I promise you, when we were well along, my dog could stay focused on me no matter what crossed his path.  Food, toys, cats, other dogs, loud noises, fire trucks with sirens blazing, whatever.  Corey was, and is, a master of “Engagement” with dogs.  I took his philosophy to heart, and am glad I did.

So, how do you achieve and build “engagement”?  Put in its simplest form, you must find what motivates your dogs attention above all other things.  One necessary point, is that I have always dealt with Working Dogs.  Dogs bred to Play drive, or Prey drive before Food Drive.  If one of Hans’ toys appears, or he smells it, nothing else matters to him.  He will go into his Sit/Stay, and be anchored until I produce that toy.  His eyes never leave mine.  You could march a sizable High School band between us, and he would remain laser-locked on me.  I’ve tested this statement on the field we practice on, which happens to be a practice field for our local High School.  That’s Hansie’s motivator.  You will need to find out what gets your dogs attention.  In the case of a working/competition dog, I would recommend not using food as motivator, as a ball or toy doesn’t include the need to chew and swallow the treat before he complies.  I also will not use a clicker, because I’m trying to build a “Drive”, rather than a “Programmed Response”.  Drive produces an  “emotional” response from the dog, while a Programmed response is just a reaction from a robot.  (Let the Clicker trainers start their protesting now.  Sorry gang, you’re training robots.  I have more on this “Programmed Response” in a pending post.)

Now then, it is necessary for me to explain something else.  In my own training regimen, I allow something else that some will say goes against common practice in the realm of Pet Dog training.  In real-world trailing/tracking  We want our dog to show his drive and excitement to work or play.  This is why I don’t prevent my dogs from getting excited at play or training time.  When we arrive at the training field, my dog is whining, barking, and ready to burst into action.  In schutzhund, before starting on a track exercise, handlers usually put their dog into a “Down/Stay”.  This  retards  the dogs enthusiasm, and in the real world, I want him busting to go…My dog is demonstrating, communicating to me, that he  wants, really wants,to do what I’m asking of him.  When a dog is able to do what he wants to do, he will do it well, and he’ll do it all day!  This does not mean that we don’t practice our best Canine Good Citizen behavior and training when we are in public.  It just means that I allow my dog to communicate to me that he’s overjoyed at our play time.  At this level of excitement, he is thoroughly engaged with me and the training to come.  Nothing else matters to him.  While on the field, Hans will watch my every move from his down/stay position.  His ears will be pricked forward toward me, his eyes shooting laser-like into mine from as far away as I need.  I wondered if his attention was mine, or if it belongs to the toy I am carrying.  To test this, I drop the ball quite dramatically and keep moving.  Those almond-colored eyes remain on me.  Success!!!  Another example of focus happened a few weeks ago…We were doing our exercises at a field which borders Walnut Creek.  We were practicing Focus, using his Avery Float toy.  His only responsibility  is to sit and watch me, until I release him.  We were 50 yards apart, determined by the lines painted on the field.  To my shock, (and moments later, Delight)  a large Whitetail Buck sporting 8 gleaming points, emerged from the woods edge and ran between us.  Hans had no reaction to the deer at all.  I, on the other hand, picked my lower jaw off the ground, and thought, “The things you see when you don’t have a gun…!”  I gave Hansie the toy and we celebrated.

  I don’t tell this story to brag about my training philosophy, because I can’t say that it was designed to accomplish this type of focus.  C.A.T.T. has developed organically, naturally.  I’ve made plenty of errors, but I’m beginning to identify them, and eliminate them.  I’ve concentrated on the relationship that Hans and I share, because I’m just crazy about him.  We are together everyday, and do everything together.  That’s a key to having engagement…but what if you don’t have that luxury of 24/7/365 training?  You can still do it! 

  In  observation of obedience trials, schutzhund, and even Agility competitions, you will almost always see a dog that loses concentration and focus.  An otherwise very fast Agility dog will miss a cue and hurdle the wrong bar or enter the tunnels in reverse of direction.  An obedience dog will hesitate, taking away the expected precision.  This is usually caused by loss of Focus from both handler and dog.  Now, ask yourself, “How often do I train with my dog?”  Many training books say that any more than an hour at a time is unsustainable.  I agree with that statement when using a specifically disciplined “Method”.  Dogs attention span can fade away in a short time if they are bored.  The wonderful thing about utilizing the Communicative Approach to your  prefered training method is that you are “Teaching” constantly.  You, as Handler, are Learning constantly.  Discipline is CONSTANT, in that your dog never takes his eyes off you.  YOU are the most important thing in the world to him.  How do you earn this focus from your dog, even if your time together is limited?

  When you are  with your dog, BE with your dog.  Allow him to share in your activity whenever possible, and DO something.  If you waste hours watching television or sitting at a computer screen, you will become boring very quickly.  I combat long hours sitting here writing, by keeping the dog’s brain occupied with “Searches” thru the house and yard.  I will give specific commands for specific items.  My keys, my cell-phone, socks, a ball, whatever.  We keep things spread all over the property for just this reason.  Yes, it’s a lot of work, and constant preparation.  It takes forethought on your part.  But the dog will ALWAYS be engaged with you until he’s so exhausted he falls over asleep, or retreats to his crate.  Believe me, he’ll communicate to you when he’s tired! 

How else do you maximize your time together?  Ask yourself, where does my dog sleep?  In the garage or kennel, away from you, the Center of the World?  Locked in a room alone?  I understand that many don’t allow their “dog” on the bed.  But, if you are trying to train a “Partner”, let your dog be a part of your “nest”.  You will quickly learn your dogs habits, as well as what comforts him.  A small request for a scritch on his fuzzy neck at 2:30 AM will seal a bond of trust and dependence when you fulfill it.  He will know that you are there, and that you will be there.  Think of how to be together everywhere…Don’t build this relationship by teaching undesirable qualities, like begging at the dinner table, but do allow your dog to be within view of you, and reward his courteous behavior. 

  There…I’ve written 1704 words on building Engagement.  It’s a long-winded way to say, “Be With Your Dog.  Play With Your Dog.  Eat With Your Dog, Sleep With Your Dog, Let Your Dog Be With You.”      It takes time, and effort.  Don’t think of your dog as a tool, to be used, put away, and taken out only when needed. 

  Your closeness will make actual training time more enjoyable and effective.  Your dog will want to do what you are teaching, and you will see it in his eyes. 

  Actually, this advice sounds like a good way to build a marriage as well…Give it a try.  I know I’m going too.  Hey Hon’?  What color are you thinking of for the kitchen??

  1. Awesome article and very true!