Can You Hear Me Now? The Three Ts of Canine Communication

dog
Canine communication can be broken down into the “3 Ts”: timing, tempo and tone. Body language also plays a big role.

Mike Stewart, the founder of Wildrose Kennels, which specializes in breeding and training Labrador retrievers, says that one of the secrets of dog training is: “Dogs don’t talk, but they are always communicating.” Do you know how to decipher what your dog is telling you? Does your dog understand what you are asking of him? We are going to delve into the human-canine communication matrix to help you understand what you are—or should be—doing when interacting with your furry companion.

Canine communication can be broken down into three main areas, or the “3 Ts”: timing, tempo and tone. Our dogs read us like an open book. They know when we are happy, sad, mad, upset and so on, but do they truly understand what we are asking from them?

Timing

From the past decade or more of training clients, I have found that timing is one of the hardest tasks for handlers to grasp. Our job as handlers is to make a correction or praise immediately when the dog does or does not do what we are asking. For example, when I have a dog on the fence and we are starting left and right casting, it is imperative to praise the dog when he takes the cast. I do not wait until he has gone 15 yards for the praise; it is immediate as soon as he turns the right direction and makes the first step. That lets Fido know he is doing exactly what I want. On the other hand, if he turns the wrong way, I am immediately hitting the stop whistle and saying, “No.” Dogs live in the moment. If the praise or correction is not immediate, they do not understand exactly what is going on. If you leave your puppy in a room and come back and pup has peed on the floor, you can’t correct him, because you didn’t catch him in the act. If you scold him at this point, he has no idea what he did. He has moved on to the next thing he wants to explore. This takes us farther down the rabbit hole with how we respond to specific behaviors. 

Not only must your timing be spot on, but also your response must be correct. We have three responses to a pup’s behavior: praise, correction and neutral. Praise and correction we all understand, but what is “neutral”? If your pup lines out for a retrieve, makes the pick and on the way back decides to do a bit of independent frolicking before eventually coming back and delivering, what should be your response? He brought it back to hand, correct? Should you praise? But he also ran around like a goofball. Should you make a correction? Neither. A neutral response here is perfect. As the handler, I do not reward or correct the dog for any of the behaviors he just exhibited. I take the bumper and reset the drill. If Fido does the same thing a second time, we move to a new area so as not to start developing a habit. Dogs are place oriented, so we move across the property and do not run that drill in the first location for a few weeks. 

Tempo

Tempo is the pace at which you conduct training. This starts when you take the pup out of the kennel. If Roscoe is lethargic and not paying attention, I will walk him on a lead at a brisk pace for the ramp-up and do a lot of squares to keep his attention. I will throw in some clapping and make it really fun for him. Conversely, if I get a dog out and he is fired up, I will do what I call a zombie walk: very slow and methodical, to get that energy down to a manageable level.

This also applies while you are running drills. If Mattis is up on his claws in a sprinter’s stance, I will move very slow during the lining process and hold him longer to control him. On the other hand, if Juice is uninterested, I will move much faster and fire him quickly to keep his focus. Tempo is directly related to reading your dog and knowing his tendencies. As you progress as a handler, you will come to know what tempo to train at immediately when you get the dog out of the kennel, and this will give you insight into how to conduct your training.

Tone

Wow, can dogs read your tone of voice! The pitch of your voice makes a huge difference when communicating with your pup, and it dramatically affects how he responds. We are all guilty of “baby talk” with our pups. I think it’s just human nature when we see those fat little balls of energy. With my young dogs, I’m going to be much more upbeat with tone when I praise them. And I’ll use a lower tone or growl when I correct. Dogs, especially pups, are very reactive to your tone when you are talking to them. 

Tone really lets the dog know when he is doing something right or wrong. Watch your pup’s body language when you give him praise with a fast, high-pitched tone. The tail is wagging, and you can see the joy in his face. In stark contrast, the body language changes dramatically when you lower your tone and use that growl, or “pirate voice.” At this point, except for key words, it doesn’t matter what you are saying; it is how you are saying it. Being cognizant of how you are communicating with your pup can make a huge difference in not only your relationship with him but also your progress as you move through the training cycle.

Body Language

In addition to the 3 Ts, I believe body language plays a big role in human-canine communication. When you praise Fido, your body language is very warm and welcoming, versus when you are making a correction, you are much stiffer and giving off that “don’t mess with me” vibe. When starting your pup on his first retrieves, you are crouched down and giving lots of praise with a higher tempo and tone, to make sure your pup knows that you are happy with his behavior. He is less likely to come right back to you if you are standing upright. Make it a big party, incorporating the 3 Ts and welcoming body language, so your pup knows he is doing everything right.

As you progress through life with your dog, you will find that your ability to communicate with him will become symbiotic. It will seem as if you both know what the other is thinking. Starting early and understanding how the human-canine communication matrix works will enhance your experience with your four-legged best friend and take your training to new heights. When you travel the country hunting, fishing and exploring, the bond you create with your dog will be something you remember for a lifetime.

Now let’s get out and train! 

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