The Power of “Quiet Presence.”

Posted: May 16, 2017 in Uncategorized

The Power of a Quiet Presence.

I witnessed the convergence of two very profound truths before this post was written. They came together quite organically, leaving me with little doubt as to their validity. I’d like to share it as a part of my “Communicative Approach” to training dogs, which I hope you are reading with an open mind.
You see, all of us fall into the habit of yelling at dogs. Whether you work in a boarding kennel, as I have, or with your own dogs at home. Whether you train in agility and rally, obedience, IPO, or dock diving, or any other type of training involving dogs. We humans are a noisy bunch, tightly wound and often stressed by life, as it comes by us at 400 mph every day. Oh, we try to relax and be calm, but we fail as often as not. And like it or not, it affects our training, and the relationship we have with our dogs. And if you work with dogs in large or semi-large group situation, it probably happens to you a lot.
The fact of the matter is this: When we allow ourselves to become frustrated, excited, and loud, the emotion and energy transfer immediately to the dog or dogs. They interpret our energy as excitement and the need to get their energy to another level somewhere above what we are putting out. Sometimes way North of where we want them to be.
Everyone understands the tenant of “The Golden Rule”, “Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You.” Now let’s look at this from the dogs point-of-view. Suppose you have a problem with unwanted barking behavior, and want to eliminate it. Your solution is to yell loudly at the dog every time it begins to bark. “QUIT THAT %#$$@*&^%&&$ BARKING or I’ll &^*(%^$ you until the ^&&%#$ and the handle breaks off *(&$$% and the base cracks in half %#^^&*!!!!

Do you really believe that the dog understands your words?
Do You really believe that the dog understands your intent and tone?
All the dog hears is, “ARRFF ARF ARRFF ARF ARFFF ARF ARRRFFF ARF ARRFF ARF ARFARFARF AARRRRFFF!!!!!!” Which the dog then interprets as, “HEY!! I’m trying to be louder than you, and joining you in the Bark Fest!!! It’s time to be loud, obnoxious, and boisterous with my human!!! Here’s my best shot!!” Epic Failure to Understand Your Dog.

I have observed this phenomena first hand. I’ve been guilty of it myself. But I’ve also tried and succeeded at the polar opposite. At my place of employment, we regularly placed 15 to 40 dogs in an open grassy enclosure for what’s called “Day Camp”. The dogs are allowed to interact, play, and socialize. I know that many of you in the Day Care industry are horrified by the very notion, but believe me, it works quite successfully. When the entire Dog Day Care industry accepts and utilizes the concept, the dogs will thank you. Yes it does require that your day care workers be more than high school children without canine experience, but that’s only a good thing.
Every large group of dogs will be made up of different breeds, temperaments, and behavior types. Even when groups are selected carefully for compatibility, there will be situations. Period. How it’s dealt with will be the largest factor in peaceable (and bloodless) resolution. Running across the field yielding a club, yelling like Attila the Hun, will only make it worse, and raise the excitement level. Once the emotional energy is released (from the human), the dogs will pick it up, and take it to a greater level. Not only will you fail to stop the altercation, you may very well make it worse.
As I often do, while reading various and sundry pieces of literary works, (anything from MAD Magazine to Atlas Shrugged and beyond), I come across truly profound passages that defend or even deny suppositions that I arrive at. This post was inspired by a passage in the Holy Bible, (Don’t Leave, It won’t hurt you!) and is found in the book of 1st Peter chapter 3, verse 4.
The good apostle, who had a bit of a reputation as being a bit impulsive in life, (cutting off the ear of a Roman Soldier with a sword as example) talked in that verse of a “Quiet and Mild Spirit” that was part of a “secret” that is kept within a persons’ heart. Something that normal persons can possess and display. He even said it “pleased God” to see this spirit displayed by the individual. Whether you value the message or not, I have seen the value and power of reacting and displaying a quiet and mild presence among groups of dogs, and over single dogs. Truth be told, the same mental attitude tends to work on humans as well. If you want to continue an argument with someone, by all means raise your voice, stick out your chest, or threaten violence. If you want to calm down an encounter, remain quiet but without cringing. Violence begets violence, and calm produces calm. Don’t believe me?
As I did my job every day, I see this on a constant basis. I often find myself in an enclosed space with 15 to 25 unleashed dogs playing and interacting. Sounds like a recipe for chaos doesn’t it? Well, it’s not. Unless…
The ability to keep some measure of control over such a group starts with the person or persons overseeing the collective. Can you manage to control your emotions and output of stress? Can you avoid yelling, shouting and the hyper-kinetics of your own stress? Is anger a common emotion that you harbor? Will two dogs wrestling in play cause you to boil over? If not, then don’t expect the dogs to remain calm either. You’re the catalyst. Stay out of the pack until you can master your own feelings.
Okay, I hear people say that, “I can’t help myself, I care about the dogs, and I’m passionate about taking care of them. I don’t want them to get hurt, so I express myself loudly.” Mule Muffins.
Let me explain it this way: Anger, displayed by yelling or chasing dogs with intent, is like a thunderstorm. Unpredictable, dangerous, and out of control. Passion is a waterfall. Ever-flowing, steady, and predictable, yet powerful. Too many people can’t tell the difference. The dogs pay the price.
I know that I’ve written about this subject before, but my research and application has only reinforced my belief in it. Try caring for your dog or dogs without speaking sometime soon. Use body language, try using your eyes, try developing a calm demeanor. Try to picture the behavior you desire from your dog in your thoughts, and do so without negative thoughts.
A “Presence” of leadership is something palpable and powerful, but never threatening. Not only will it help control frenetic, frenzied activity, it also makes shy, nervous dogs, respond to you. For instance, in my work, we sometimes encounter dogs that are quite reluctant about coming out of a kennel. They may be frightened of the environment, they may be shying from the loud barking in the kennel area. Taking the time to enter the dogs enclosure slowly, and sitting quietly and patiently will quite often bring the dog to your side. Don’t react too quickly, as the dog needs time to trust this new presence. It might take several minutes, even multiple sessions. But the quiet presence will eventually produce results.
Another example of this is my work with blind dogs. When first encountered, some dogs lacking sight react to strange presences by being defensive, even nipping or worse. Allowing your presence to be felt thru scent, and a calm voice, will allow you to work with such a dog. As trust grows, your calm protective presence will allow you to walk such a gentle soul. The dog becomes confident that it is in no danger with you, and that your presence is trustworthy.
There is great power and strength in a quiet and mild spirit. With dogs, and with people.

I have the opportunity to observe a large variety of people with their dogs every day. At work, at play, or just hanging out. In fact, much of the development of the communicative approach to dog-training was born of these sessions, by simply watching both human and dog interact. No matter which method of training you choose to discipline your dog in, you must, must, must, be able to communicate effectively. Not just trainer to dog, but also in the reverse, dog to trainer. I suppose that it should have been an early lesson in the Communicative Approach, but these things often arise only in retrospect, or hindsight. And so it is with Self-Control. And by that, I mean your Self-Control as a trainer, handler, or human being. But what is Self-Control? Let me start at ground zero for the definition as it is intended in this context.

Do you find yourself yelling at your dog?? Do you yell at the dog(s) you work with? Do you believe that yelling at dogs is in anyway helpful? If so, you lack self-control.
Observing kennel workers on a regular basis, I see more reliance on the high volume human voice than any other method. Closely followed by such silliness as spray bottles, and “time out”, which means banishment to a kennel or a crate. All three of those methods show that “self-control” has degraded into eliminating what annoys the human involved. The dog learns nothing except that the human doesn’t understand the first thing about dogs or their training. Will yelling at a dog (or a pack of dogs) quiet them for any meaningful length of time? No, simply put. In fact, it probably has the opposite effect. If you try to prevent unwanted barking by yelling at the dog, the dog thinks that you are taking part in the barking, and will amp it up accordingly. If you are trying to eliminate an unwanted behavior in your dog, will yelling stop the behavior? No, and it likely will raise the dogs anxiety level. Not only does the dog not understand your words, your volume confuses his ability to read your body language.
The only humans that really need to yell, are military drill sergeants. But they have a different goal, and a very different individual in front of their steely gaze. That may be why some dog trainers confuse yelling with a useful tool. It works with people that are being conditioned to obey commands in the stress of combat. For the most part, your dog is just not under the same demand. Nor is the dog as intelligent as a human, that can understand the “why” of such conditioning. All a dog knows is the energy or emotion that your yelling produces.
Some of the most self-controlled dog trainers that I’ve watched, have been the Decoys in top level bite work. They understand how to raise a dogs level of excitement to a given point, and just as efficiently lower it back to what I’ll call, “Petting the dog is now possible” level. They use their own body language and energy to slow the dog, often without using the voice at all. Yet they use their voice to raise the dogs level to the attack level.
Another great place to observe self-control with dog training is agility. The best competitors never yell at their dog, mistakes are corrected by hand signals usually, but also with contact of an instructive nature. Not striking, but guiding. Yes, I know that yelling can be heard at any of these events at some point, but not everybody is thinking properly.
Want to observe “lack of self-control” in its native habitat? Try a dog park on a Saturday. Lots of dogs, lots of distractions, lots of dog owners struggling to keep their dog under control. You can always observe somebody chasing a dog across the field yelling at the top of their lungs to “Get back here you stupid dog!!!!”
Communication that truly helps is always given in a calm manner. Yes, the intensity level, not the volume, can be properly raised by the human, should the lesson require it.
I use as an example the “down-stay”. Which is actually a misnomer. The dog should be taught that “down” means “stay until otherwise told.” The release from down is always another command, whether verbal or visual. But that energy level comes from the trainers physical demeanor. Anger, which almost always begets yelling, has no place on the training field or while working with your dog. Your dog reads anger in only a negative sense, never as a response to the knowledge of how important a lesson may be. Dogs don’t process things through that prism. They sense your emotion as raw, intimidating, fearful. Not protective, which may very well be your intended purpose. The dog cannot delineate between anger and a high priority command, because the concept is beyond his cognition. Yelling at a human child to “Stay Out of The Road!” might work because the child can be taught to think of the inherent danger of such actions. Not so your dog. Truth be told, yelling at your child or any other human being is generally counterproductive as well. Learning to calmly discipline and instruct will make all of us better at life’s varying situations. There will always be that one boss, parent, trainer, or other human that feels that a loud voice is the most effective tool. They are usually the most avoided and lonely people. We simply don’t enjoy being pushed around by aggressiveness, and we usually respond badly to such treatment. Put yourself in an empathetic mode with your dog, and develop self-control, or risk living in a state of constant non-compliance with dogs.
Occasionally, you will see a human lose their cool at a competition, practice, or training session. They might call the dog names, throw a leash, or kick an object because of some perceived failure of the dog, or the stark realization that the failure was purely on themselves. This is not as common at competitions, but it does happen in practices with others at a class, and it definitely happens in the privacy of their own sessions. Maybe you’ve had a rough day at work, on the crowded roads, or with a friend or family member. It happens to all of us. Sometimes life just happens that way. Pop culture psycho-babble would advise “letting off steam”, maybe even busting things up and relieving the stress of anger. Fortunately, we’ve moved beyond that sort of craziness.
Our emotions flow thru our dogs, and once you’ve lit that spark, it’s going to burn. The Book of Proverbs, 14:30 in the revised standard version Bible says it clearly: “A tranquil mind gives life to the flesh, but passion makes the bones rot.”
Way too many people think of anger as passion. Overflowing enthusiasm. But it’s not. Anger is just frustration that blocks even flow of energy and emotion. It has a place, but not in dog training. If you find yourself angry, put your dog up in a calm place, walk away, and find tranquility. Sometimes it’s hard, but it’s a better way.
Take notice that I haven’t discussed anything about hitting or kicking a dog. I shouldn’t have to really. You know better. And if you don’t know better, leave dogs alone and start a tree farm in North Dakota. I’m talking about violently taking your anger out on a dog, not physical corrections that involve correcting a dog. A small tap on the ribs is not out of line, though some might believe it is so. Punching with the fist, kicking hard enough to move the dog, or pinching an ear are what I’m referring too. If you are a Cesar Millan hater, don’t bother me with your complaints, because that’s way below the level of what humans are capable of doing. I’ve yet to see the man harm a dog out of anger, in spite of what you might want to convince others that he’s doing. I may not entirely agree with him, but I recognize that he’s been attacked more because of political correctness than his methodology.
By choice, I write predominantly about Working Dogs, not Aunt Mable’s fluffy, white, cockapoo, though the point still applies. Large, driven dogs correct one another with far worse physical correction than we should, so small physical contact is not described as losing one’s self-control.
I have observed what I’m discussing here first hand. Outsiders will observe bite work for instance, and believe that the training is vicious, or out-of-control. They see a wild, angry beast, attacking an equally angry human being. They always miss the subtle scritch between the ears that the handler will give to the dog when commanded out to a sit position. The dog is not out-of -control at all. The same applies to the Handler. The phrase “controlled chaos” is often used in K9 circles, and a well-respected family of trainers even use that as a name for their business enterprise. Their dogs live in their home with their daughters very successfully. My conclusion is that the family has mastered calmness of heart and self-control with their dogs. And those dogs are at the top of their game. That style probably permeates their home, including raising their children.
I’ve talked to my own dogs about self-control. I’ve asked them, “How do I train you in the best way?”
They’ve shown me by their behavior, which mind-set produces success in training, and working. The answer is always the same. “Keep your Cool Dad. I understand you, and if you listen calmly, I’m communicating with you in return…listen closely!”


  1. htgerman says:

    Thanks for this, Robert! What you describe is certainly in line with my experience. Now I just need to get the men in the family to read this 🙂