It's Your Own Language
By Patrick Shannahan

June 27th, 2014

When we start a clinic, I usually tell new students and clients, that basically all the knowledge the dog needs to work stock, is already in his head. They are preprogrammed to want to work and gather stock. What the dog is lacking, is a way to understand what we need from him in the job. Training is nothing more than developing a new language between yourself and your dog. Your language is unique, and should be tailored to both you and your working partner.

So, how can I tell a new dog how to understand my language? It gets easier, as I have watched which tones and cadences work with most dogs. But most of my language was developed through trial and error. Some dogs need the language tweaked, but most immediately start to understand what is needed and asked of them.

At a trial I was judging recently, a well known handler was running her young dog in Open. The course was straight-forward, but many dogs were having problems with the outrun. So, I was surprised when I saw how horribly this Open handler communicated with her young, Open dog. About half way up to the set out, the dog got totally lost. She was looking totally in the wrong space. The Open handler quickly blew a stop whistle, as the young dog was starting to cross the course. The handler's timing could not have been worse. Each time he asked the young dog to look for the sheep, as soon as the dog was looking, he screamed "No!" Every time the dog finally looked the correct direction, he immediately corrected the dog for the previous fault of possible crossover.

I thought to myself, how can this dog get the correct communication. With such poor timing and communication skills, how will the dog ever understand? Screaming and yelling, how was the dog to keep a clear mind of what was expected? With limited line of sight vision, how was the dog to find the sheep?

After a few minutes, the dog unexpectedly took off. In the correct direction! With a good shape and reaching the sheep in proper fashion. How could this happen? I would have never guessed it would get anywhere close to the sheep. But the dog somehow took off with confidence and reached the packet of sheep in good order.

After the trial, I was still confused and surprised by the incident. It took me a few weeks to process that outrun with the young dog and experienced Open handler. How could have that been successful with such poor communication? I pride myself in trying to be clear to the dogs, so how could someone who was so unclear succeed in a difficult situation?

Processing the whole situation again and again in my head, I finally realized that the dog understood the language. It wasn't my language, it was the owner's language. And although I think there are much better ways to communicate and be clear, it doesn't matter on this occasion, because the dog understood what and where it was supposed to go.

If you go to a clinic or lesson with me, sometimes you might hear me say, "yes, it might suck to be your dog, but that is their job to understand what your communication is saying." That is true with poor whistles as well as poor verbal skills.

The good dog will figure it out. The good dog will try until it can get it correct. The good dog will succeed, despite what others think about the language.


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