Physical vs Verbal

By Pat Taylor
Fellstar Bouvs, TX

​I would like to call attention to the way we communicate with our dogs.  The type of communication we have with them.  From the beginning of our relationship with our dogs we communicate with them in a variety of ways. 

​We are just going to talk herding.  How we communicate with our companions about herding.  All I want to communicate to you, the reader, is the concept concerning body language and verbal cues.  How we use them and how we need to evaluate our communication skills as we advance in training the art of herding.

​Kindergarten and elementary school in herding training consists of the trainer using body language to communicate with the dog.  Body language needs no words.  It is a Pressure & Release system readily recognized by all dogs.  From the time dogs open their eyes around 10 days old they watch body language, whether in their littermates, their dam or other dogs.  They react/respond to body language on an instinctual level as well as instinctually use body language in their own communication.  As the dog ages it learns more about body language as it learns from its experiences in life.  Thus, there is a continuum here for learning.  With no common language for communication the need to read the environment to survive is extraordinary.  

​Our own body language affects the dog from the moment we enter that dog’s world, whether as the breeder or as the new owner.  Every breath we take and every move we make TELLS the dog something and/or effects change in the dog’s behavior, attitude, and temperament.  They literally read our body language and interpret it, adjust their actions accordingly and even reflect it back at us.  Ever wonder how the dog knows you’re fixing to get out of that chair before you’ve made a move to do so?  It’s because the dog is aware of every breath you take.  It reads the tensing in your body in preparation for a move.  The dog is that keen; that aware; that connected to YOU.

​In training we have the option to teach our dogs verbal commands in addition to using our own physical posture (body language) to give direction to the dog.  Both are forms of communication.  One is intrinsic and the other is learned, but in the end they will both result in the dog performing a given exercise.  Both work well.  In verbal we are teaching the dog the meaning of a word and then expect the dog to do a certain routine/exercise whenever they hear that specific word.  In all verbal you are putting a word to an action.  We are NOT explaining or training the dog how to execute that action with words UNTIL the dog totally understands what action is to be done upon hearing the word.  If the dog understands the word then you may teach the dog an exercise by combining words associated with specific actions to sequence those actions into an exercise.  

​In some dogs, we may be simply putting a word to an action the dog already does.  (Don’t we all wish.)  In other dogs we have to train the action (every step it takes to get a certain action) THEN put a word to it.  Those dogs require a little more effort on the trainer’s part to understand a verbal cue.  We may have a sequence of moves we’ve trained and then make one word apply to the whole sequence.  This is how we get a reenactment of the exact same sequential usage in a predictable and consistent manner.

​One of the greatest problems with teaching a dog a verbal command is that we (the human in the equation) do not readily realize that a series of specific moves make up the completion of the task/routine/exercise.  We arbitrarily think one command, one task.  Not so much…

​We say the word, “Away”, and expect the dog to take a flank.  But in reality the word “Away” requires the dog put together a series of movements to complete the exercise we’ve requested.  Each step in an exercise is trained separately then sequenced together to achieve the resultant exercise.  We forget that in the beginning we had to use body language to “make it happen”, e.g., the dog had to yield its head, then its body, at a 90 degree angle, then take a step in the correct direction, then arch around the stock AND maintain a given distance around said stock, and continue in said arch, until told to stop with some type of redirect command.

​The body language used to create the steps leading up to a completed flank can and do lead to some problems in communication when we try to transfer that sequence of moves to a verbal only command.

​Many times problems are seen when the handler unconsciously continues to give physical cues along with the verbal command.  In the beginning you HAVE to continue some of the physical cues but so also do you have to eventually wean the dog off the need for such body language.  

​We, as handlers and trainers, become enablers for the LACK of response in the dog to a given verbal command IF we do not consciously REMOVE the physical cue during training.  It is OUR fault, not the dog’s, if the dog doesn’t completely understand and comply with a verbal command.  

​There is a small problem here that happens many times with beginner handlers (and even advanced ones).  They do not KNOW they are still using body language to cue their dog!  Hmmmmmmm…  The body language from the person may be as infinitesimal as you “lean” your body in a direction.  You twist your shoulders.  Cock your head.  Raise your hand(s).

​We ask the dog to Away and the dog lies there without attempting to flank.  We then automatically give a conscious physical cue and the dog takes the flank.  We continue to have to add the physical cue even though we’ve added the word, “Away”.

​At some point the handler/trainer HAS to remove the physical cue and make the dog responsible for its own action, or lack thereof.  When the dog truly understands the exercise but will not respond to the physical cue, and we continue to use the physical cue, then we are purposefully taking responsibility away from the dog for responding to that flanking command.  We are purposefully assuming responsibility for the dog completing the requested action.

​But backtrack… just in case the dog doesn’t understand… The biggest problem I see in training are handlers that ask too much of their dog when transferring from physical to verbal.  They want the dog to do a huge Outrun with a verbal only command and when the dog hesitates they fall back to using physical cues to help the dog achieve the desired response.  (Again, assuming responsibility for the dog’s job.)  They may have always been unconsciously assuming responsibility of the flank by pushing the dog the entire flank.  Bad person!  In which case the trainer needs to be retrained.  But they may just not understand how to transition the dog from physical to verbal.

​Instead, as trainers, we need to go back to the basics in training and retrain the dog in each phase to be 100% verbal only.  We need to teach the dog to yield to the verbal command just like we taught the dog to yield to a physical cue.  We need to add each step until we have a complete exercise and a verbal command to make it happen.

​What was the first step you taught for yielding?  Turn the head?  Then go back and retrain again using verbal only.  It is almost always that first step where the dog sticks when transferring to a verbal cue.  Usually once you get that step the rest flows together.

​There are few options for making a dog assume responsibility for its own actions.  In obedience you use different types of motivational tools to increase drive so that you can use micromanagement to achieve completion of a given exercise.  You want happy and micromanagement in obedience.  In herding we do NOT want to micromanage (just the happy and preferably intense instead of happy).  We may have to look at a combination of negative feedback that is given to the dog for not responding appropriately.  We have to also look at what motivation we can use to help the dog assume responsibility for its own actions.  Again, many times it is only the first step we need to reinforce with the physical cue and the rest will fall into place.  But that physical cue may need to be uncomfortable enough to “make” the dog take the first step in executing a command.

​The physical cue at THIS juncture in training may have to be modified to be a correction or be negative or uncomfortable when applied for a lack of response by the dog to a verbal command.  If the dog is automatically waiting to “see” the body language before attempting to respond to a verbal cue then you have to give it a reason to at least try something in response to the cue.  You cannot reward the “waiting”.  It needs a little motivation to WANT to move.

​The negative or uncomfortable feedback you give the dog is called pressure.  You are applying pressure to the dog, wanting the dog to respond.  The amount of pressure you need to apply before you get a reaction in the dog will totally depend on a variety of circumstances, including the temperament of the dog.  How driven the dog is to work stock.  But pressure NEEDS to be applied and a response NEEDS to be gained.  This is the FIRST step in making your dog “verbal”.

​Remember that at this juncture pressure needs to be applied but the RELEASE of pressure is what tells the dog it is right in its response.  Remember that throughout you training lifetime.  RELEASE OF PRESSURE is what trains the dog; NOT the application thereof.  It is also what motivates the dog to continue to try.

​In teaching a verbal only flank I may have to get close to the dog to tap him on the nose again to make him take that flank or at least the first step.  I will say the flank command and simultaneously tap the dog to gain a response.  I may do this only once or twice then say the verbal command and wait a millisecond before tapping the dog again to gain a response.  The tiniest response will gain the dog praise and release of pressure, which IS the reward.  I will build from there.

​The ONLY way to advance in herding is to make your dog verbal.  Very shortly, after starting to train my dog, I will start with verbal commands.  Sometimes I will see the dog start taking the verbal command by itself instead of waiting for the physical cue.  Great!!!  That usually means I’ve done a good job of making the dog understand the exercise and the dog is comfortable doing the exercise without my help.

​Remember, a verbal command equates to asking the dog to successfully complete a sequence of moves you have already trained to perfection.  If you want a perfect flank when you ask for one verbally you had better be getting that perfect flank first when using body language to cue your dog.  Do not expect the dog to miraculously become perfect in something he hasn’t been perfect in beforehand.

​Continuing to use body language is a crutch and should be seen as such.  It is needed and necessary in the training and in helping the dog understand what we are asking the dog to do.  But as you advance in training it should be slowly eliminated as the dog comes to a better understanding of what is being requested.

​The FASTER you eliminate body language from your repertoire the better control you will have on your dog and the better performance you will get out of your dog.  Also, the better your dog will be at a distance!!!  

​You will ALWAYS fall back to using body language to help explain exercises and the steps thereof, to your dog.  But don’t let it become that crutch and/or use it to micromanage the dog.

​IMPORTANT NOTE:  A dog will ALWAYS respond to body language OVER verbal cues.  In the dog’s mind body language trumps verbal cues.  It is imperative that you, as a trainer, understand this.  

​ONE of the reasons I want body language to be eliminated as a factor as soon as possible is because your body language will also “mess up” the dog when the body language is wrong.  This is seen over and over again in beginners that are constantly turning to face their dogs or trying to turn around to give a physical cue.  You see the dogs responding to the handler’s body as the handler turns in circles looking for their dog. (It’s moved trying to reposition because your “body language” is chancing constantly.)  The dog looks like he is hiding behind the handler’s as the person turns and the dog keeps moving.  That is NOT what’s happening.  The dog is responding to the physical cues the handler is unconsciously giving as he turns.  The dog is swinging back and forth trying to figure out what the handler wants them to do.  Makes for some interesting viewing scenarios in watching runs as a judge.  Wrong but interesting.

​It will take YEARS to wean your dog off body language.   But you have to be AWARE of it first.  Then you have to train with the intent to eventually eliminate it.

Body language is a wonderful training tool and aid.  Don’t let it become a crutch.  PRESSURE AND RELEASE!  Let your dog work!

​Enjoy the journey!