VERBAL COMPLIANCE

By Pat Taylor
Fellstar Bouvs

Verbal Compliance: A dog’s correct response to a verbal command. 

One of the biggest problems I see in trialing, is the failure of dogs to be verbally compliant.  The  reason for the failure to comply is usually multifaceted.  A novice dog that simply isn’t far enough along in training to be verbally compliant; a handler Gatling gunning commands faster than a speeding bullet (the dog gives up any semblance of listening at some point); advanced dog that is using intelligent disobedience when it knows the task and the handler calls the wrong command; bad handling and a confused dog as to what the handler is asking; etcetera, etcetera, etcetera…many, many reasons.  This failure usually results in the handler doing some physical contortion that is expected to make the dog compliant.  These physical contortions are known as “body language. 
“Body Language”: Specific body posture/movements that are seen by the dog and interpreted to have a specific meaning causing a specific response from the dog.

Even advanced dogs will fall back on a handler’s body language for clues as to how to respond to any given command.  Whether in humans or animals; upwards of 98% of communication is body language.  It is natural.  As a law enforcement officer I rely on body language to clue me in as to the gravity of any given situation.  So also do our dogs and they are the supreme beings at reading body language.

Body language is the greatest tool a trainer has.  From the day we first meet our companion we use body language to communicate with our friends.  We smile, we pet, we hug, we treat, and so also do we scold, discipline, pressure, etc;  all using body language.   But the time comes when we need to wean both the dog AND ourselves from using body language to help the dog comply.  At some point, the dog has to comply with the spoken word without the crutch of looking at the handler to “see” what the correct response should be to a given command.

So it is doubly important that a trainer truly train a dog to be verbally compliant to all commands without the need to “signal” a dog through some physical cue (body language) to gain compliance to the command.

In general I see handlers not training properly for a dog to BECOME verbally compliant.  Handler’s use body language like a crutch and don’t drop the crutch when the dog understands a command.  So the dog waits for that confirmation via body language before the dog responds.  Basically the dog doesn’t want to be wrong so waits for the body language to be sure its response is correct.  The handler unknowingly/unconsciously TRAINS the dog to wait for the body language.  This whole process not only hinders the dog from advancing in training but is very frustrating for both handler and dog when the dog begins working at a greater distance from the handler and a more advanced level. 

Thus, we come to the command itself.  The only way a dog can be verbally compliant is for the dog to completely understand what is required for an appropriate response.  This means the training the dog receives MUST be enough so that the dog understands e-x-a-c-t-l-y what is expected.

Humans are impatient creatures.  We want everything yesterday.  Thus, we tend to take the path of least resistance and sometimes are not as thorough in training as we should be (myself included).  We want to trial AS we train, instead of trialing AFTER the dog is trained.  So, most of the time, I will see dogs that are not quite ready to trial.  Again, myself included.  But this leads to us expecting our dogs to achieve greatness without a proper foundation.  Quite simply it leads to HOLES in our training.  Most of those holes can be identified as a lack of understanding in the dog, which results in the dog looking for more input from the handler for clarification of what the handler wants, e.g., the dog not being verbally compliant and the handler using body language to try to explain and help the dog respond correctly.

Let’s give only one example for clarification.  You give a flank command.  The dog’s flank is tight instead of wide.  So you step in and try to widen the flank by using body language to threaten the dog and push the dog wider.  I usually hear the handler use an “out” command trying to make the dog get wider.  Many times I’ll “see” the handler use both body language and verbal commands to try to get the dog wider.  The handler will use their stock stick trying to push the dog wider while giving an Out command.  I may see a small response from the dog to widen its flank.

Let’s break down the flank command to explain both “verbal compliance” and to show “holes” in training AND show “body language”.  I want to show what it takes for a dog to be verbally compliant.

When a handler gives a verbal flank command MANY things need to happen.  It’s like the domino effect.  The first domino falls and pushes the 2nd domino to fall, that pushes the 3rd domino, etc., etc. etc.  This is how a flank works.  An example:

My dog lies quietly at my feet facing the stock.  (Not at an angle away from me but headon to the stock as is correct).  I give the flank command.  The FIRST element in the flank is for the dog to hold its position waiting for my command.  The SECOND element is for the first steps the dog takes to be at a 90 degree angle away from me.  (If I’m in the middle of the clock, the sheep are at 12 o’clock and the dog leaves my side heading for 3:00 or 9:00 o’clock. Directly to my right or left.  This is how “I” teach my dog to leave on a flank so as to start at a proper angle for the flank to be wide and off contact.)  Those are the first two things that need to happen.  The “elements” need to happen withOUT any aid from the handler; with a verbal command only.  In the beginning, body language is needed to help explain what I want.  But the end result should be a dog willingly taking the flank as taught.

I want you to think, what “verbal skills” you may need along the way to help your dog succeed? What verbiage CAN you use to help your dog understand what you are verbally telling him to do?  In MY world an “out” means to turn around and go directly away from stock.  Not get wider and keep flanking at an angle around stock but to turn nose to tail and go 180 degrees away from the  stock.  So the “out” command as “I” see it used by many handlers is a bastardization of the real command.  So what command SHOULD you use when your dog is running too close/tight.  Simple, you redirect with another flank command.  If the dog has been taught to turn 90 degrees on the flank command you should see that 90 degree angle with the redirect.  If you don’t see this 90 degree angle, TRAIN IT!  If need be, stop the dog with a Down and redirect to get that 90 degree angle.  Make it so!  If you have trouble getting the 90 degree angle with the first step in a flank you sure won’t get anywhere near that 90 degrees when the dog is in motion executing a flank.  Go BACK and train it.  Again, MAKE IT SO! 

Now you have a verbal skill to correct a tight flank without using body language.  You have the verbal commands/skills of the flank command, Down and redirect.  If need be Down and Out the dog in training to get distance; then redirect.  Many options that IF TRAINED you should be able to use without having to use body language.  This article is not meant to help you train it; it’s meant to show verbal compliance vs body language.  A note; Please don’t bastardize the Out command by giving it while the dog is in motion and the dog just getting a little wider.  You are teaching the dog to cheat you if you do this plus you loose the Out exercise as you get a dog that flanks on the Out command.

THINK of what command you need to use to correct a dog and TRAIN IT!

If I need to pull the flank tighter as the dog is too wide (don’t we all wish we had this problem) then I can use a “Here” command.  It will naturally draw the flank in and make the dog run tighter.  That is, IF that is the command you use for a recall.  The logic behind this is that the “Here” command pulls toward you.

Personally, I “mark” when my dog does what I’ve asked.  Marking behavior allows ME to tell my dog when he is right or wrong without repeating the command.  As long as I don’t let marking behavior become a crutch (cheerleading), it makes for better communicative skills.

All dogs need help periodically in following commands.  You pick up your stock stick to block them or push them out, or hold them in pressure, etc.  The use of a stock stick IS body language.  You may, unknowingly or unconsciously, use body posture/body language simultaneously with a verbal command.  This is done out of fear the dog won’t do it right and needs your help.  Okay guys.  That is a little conceited of you thinking your dog cannot learn a command and you will always have to help them.  It’s time to wean yourself off using body language to help command your dog.  It’s time to LET the dog work on its own.

When you get past the fetching stage and start driving it is imperative to learn to let the dog work.  VERBALLY correct whatever the dog is doing wrong.  If you can’t do it verbally then you’ve failed to train a specific command/foundation exercise.  You’ve left a hole in your foundation training.  Go back and fill the hole.

Slow down.  Take stock in what you are verbally telling your dog.  Articulate clearly and concisely what you want the dog to do.  Then stand still and LET them work.  LET them screw up.  SEE what you have actually taught them.  Correct any bad training but LET them work it out if possible.  Help when absolutely necessary.  Give the dog some credit.  Don’t be in such a hurry to make the dog right.  In the end the dog has to make itself right so TRAIN it that way.  Enjoy the journey of learning… together.