Reading the Dog

Nate working 6 month old Stuka son, Danko vom Reichtal

Reading the Dog;
Communication Without Words

written by Nate Harves

I once heard a dog joke that went something like this:

This guy sees a sign in front of a house, “Talking Dog for Sale .” Curious, he rings the bell and the owner tells him the dog is in the backyard. The guy goes into the backyard and sees a black mutt just sitting there. “You talk?” he asks. “Yep,” the mutt replies. Amazed, the man asks “So, what’s your story?” The mutt looks up and says, “Well, I discovered this gift pretty young and knew I wanted to help the government, so I told the CIA about my gift, and in no time they had me jetting from country to country, sitting in rooms with spies and world leaders, because no one figured a dog would be eavesdropping. I was one of their most valuable spies eight years running. The jetting around really tired me out, and I knew I wasn’t getting any younger and I wanted to settle down. So I signed up for a job at the airport to do some undercover security work, mostly wandering near suspicious characters and listening in. I uncovered some incredible dealings there and was awarded a batch of medals. Had a wife, a mess of puppies, and now I’m just retired.” The guy is speechless. He goes back in and asks the owner what he wants for the dog. The owner says, “Ten dollars.” The guy says, “That dog is amazing. He can talk for Pete’s sake! Why on earth are you selling him so cheaply?” The owner replies, “Because that dog’s a liar. He didn’t do any of those things.”

A funny little joke that pokes fun at the fact that dogs can’t talk. But I have a little secret to share….they talk to some people that know how to listen.

The ability to effectively communicate with a dog without the use of words, to efficiently and clearly convey what you mean to express, and also fully understand what you’re being told by the dog, displaying precise actions and reactions based upon your immediate observations, is the sometimes mysterious art of reading dogs. It’s a like a dance between man and animal where no words are spoken but communication is constantly occurring. The better the ability to read the dog is, the better the communication level is, and the more productive the training session becomes.

The skill of truly being able to read dogs is not something money can buy. It’s not a magic video to watch or an article in a magazine to read. It is something that is attained through thousands of hours of research, study, and absolute 100% hands on experience. To me, a person can either truly read dogs or they can’t. Some people understand some things, but what communication is being lost when you can’t see it all? What key information was lost that would have affected decisions made? A very important goal of any serious handler or helper should include being able to truly read dogs. This skill is one, probably more important than any other, required to help you find your way to your best level of success and achievement. It will have direct result on the type of handler, helper, or even breeder you become.

“Whoever can find the answer to this question: ‘How can I say this to my dog?’ has already won the game.”
-Captain Max von Stephanitz

So, if a person wanted to start learning how to read dogs, what can they do? Well, when I wanted to learn German, I went to people that could speak German. If I was a person wanting to learn to read dogs, I would go to people who can read dogs. Sure, a person can start learning on their own, but why not benefit from the lessons and experiences of someone ahead of you who has been there and done that? There is no faster way to correctly learn this skill than by surrounding yourself with knowledgeable people who are willing to help you “see” what they see. Like anything, having a good mentor(s) will show you progress in leaps and bounds above what you’d have done alone. You are no different than a puppy needing imprinted and foundationed. The better information you get in the beginning, the quicker and better the final result will probably be.

That’s not to say that someone else will do all the work for you, because they won’t and they can’t. You have to work hard at it, and one way that will happen is by doing your own homework along the way. You should be seeking information and knowledge through books and videos, your own personal experiences, observation of others and their dogs, observation of your dog in your training regimen, etc. A fantastic arena to get both the mentoring and self-tutoring accomplished in the same place is a good schutzhund club. I believe that schutzhund is a tremendous way to learn to master this skill because more so than any other discipline it looks at the dog in a totalitarian vantage point of so many drives and behaviors and it shapes and molds those into the desired end product.

When I first got involved in schutzhund I had already been training protection dogs and felt I had a decent grasp on defense and aggression. I had no idea of the overall knowledge and experience that was about to open up to me through the sport of schutzhund. Like many, I was consumed by it. When I would show up to club, I had a thousand questions. And when I wasn’t asking questions I did the smartest thing I could; I shut my mouth and opened my eyes and ears. To everything. From the new puppy being worked on a rag to the SchH3 dogs being worked. Tracking. Obedience. Protection. Schutzhund.

I quickly saw that the protection dog I had trained and brought out to try schutzhund wasn’t cut out for it. He was a very good protection dog, but I wanted to learn schutzhund and he was too far into his game. So, I left my good boy to watch over my home and I went to club alone. I sat up front watching the dogs worked, asked my questions, and made my observations quietly in my mind. In my off time I was constantly reading books, magazines, training articles, researching pedigrees, and studying working videos like they haled all the answers to life itself. I did that for well over the first year. Then I got a puppy and started with him what I had learned. Looking back, I had only begun to dip my fingers into the knowledge there to be learned. I remember each time I would learn something I would get excited. Like I had found another missing page to add to the book of knowledge. Each piece along the way adds and adds up; the more experience you have and the more you’ve seen and done and learned, the better you will be at identifying and reading things because you’ve made your book of knowledge very thick.

My knowledge and ability to read dogs began to take further leaps and bounds when I was able to move from just handling and start doing training helper work. Helper work, especially under the eyes of mentors with a wide range of good dogs to work, will teach you how to read dogs more than any other single solitary step within schutzhund. As a helper you see things others don’t. It’s a front row seat at the stage. You are the person interacting and having this “conversation” with this dog in front of you and it’s almost like others are sitting, watching, wondering, what is really being said between the two of you. Well, I wanted to know what was being said. I purchased my helper equipment and carried it out each day. Each day it would sit there while I watched and each day I’d carry it back just as new as when it came out. I felt like Rudy trying to play for Notre Dame. After about another year of doing this, one day I got the thumbs up to put my scratch pants on and work some dogs. On that day if you’d listened closely, over the bark of that powerful SchH3 dog in the blind with me, a little whistle blew. My train to really learning to read dogs had just left the station!

By now being able to learn training helper work I was able to work a wide range of dogs. This is very important. When you are starting, every dog has something to teach you if you want to learn it. This is key even for people not doing helper work. Instead of sitting there gabbing and sharing jokes until it’s time to work your dog, watch what is being worked and learn from it. Take advantage of the learning opportunities happening right in front of you. The knowledge is there if you want it. You just have to reach out for it. Stand in the blind on the SchH3 dog, learn a few escapes and practice your drives on the retired dog. Watch the more experienced helpers put a puppy into high prey with a rag on a buggy whip and see how they get them to bark and bite better. Truly see it. There is a difference between watching and seeing!

Reading dogs isn’t just helper work by a longshot. It’s an all encompassing skill. Handlers need to read their dog to get the best they can from them, too. A successful handler doesn’t just walk along and say fuss and pop a ball every now and then. Reading is occurring and the acts of the handler are based upon the clues being given by the dog during their perceptions and receptions of what is happening during that exercise. Much of what I’m saying is directed mainly at helper work for schutzhund for the purposes of trying to pinpoint some reading behaviors for this article, but the information is really the same for all. The signs and what they mean are there for anyone, be it handler, helper, Judge, breeder, or even spectator. A handler reads their dog to see how they are responding to the commands and what rewards are high enough and which are too high; what works in that exercise and what doesn’t work at all. The keen eye of the handler having good reading ability cues that little voice in the head that marks the behavior or gives the reward at that precise moment in time. It’s the ability to on trial day know if your dog is in a good state. Does something need refreshed? Warmed up? Or are we ready to shine? The breeder may be watching the dog in training or in trial and looking for key things that tell them the abilities and genetic level of the dog. Things they see they like, dislike, things that will make a strong breeding partner, or a trait or behavior that steers them away. The Judge should also be looking through the exercises and really seeing the dog and making decisions based in part on this. Is the dog pressured, or completely free? Is the dog fighting the helper or just going along? When and how did the grip suffer? Was the dog powerful, or was it a second more from coming off the sleeve? The spectator may be doing all of this. Reading the dog is all about seeing and understanding all that is happening and gathering all that information and intelligently applying it to something. The “something” may change, but the reality of what is being viewed does not.

To be effective as a training helper, you have to know drives and recognize behaviors in the animal to be able to get the best result. When we talk about reading dogs that is an extremely large part of that equation. Your goal should be to look at a dog and immediately know what drive/behavior they are showing, and know what drive/behavior they need to be showing to get what you want to happen as good as it possibly can be done. It may sometimes be a trial and error type way of work that you see something that worked on one dog isn’t working on this one and your plan of action immediately changes in a new direction for this particular dog in front of you at that particular moment in time. A good helper is like a tactical chess player in that they know what they are going to do, know what the dog will do in return, and know exactly what they’ll do when that happens. Your actions are planned out before you and you always try and stay a few steps ahead in where those actions are going to go. Everything starts with knowing where you want to end up, and reading the dog gives you the map on how to get there. Your attempt to read that dog begins with your first eye contact or physical encounter of each other. Dogs do this extremely well. They are masters of body language and behaviors. A dog can look at you and immediately size up what is happening by your movements, tone, eye contact, equipment, etc. Good interaction between a helper and a dog is like watching good sparring partners in a boxing ring. They are watching and making notations of each other’s movement, counter movement to their actions, expressions, etc. The faster and more correct these interactions and communications occur the better. Delay or misreading can greatly affect what happens in the end. And the end goal is to do whatever it takes the get the best out of that dog and move their ability forward based upon what you as the helper are seeing in the work. You want no mixed signals here, clear lines of communication are key.

When I work a dog I am always mindful of what the goal of the session is, understanding that my slightest actions can play a huge role in the final outcome. Whatever game plan I have going into the session is really just an outline. It changes in an instant when I see something, like a fork in the road not shown on the map. When I come to it I simply choose the best path and get going, fully aware that path may split off in a new direction again soon after. I may see a behavior that needs corrected, I may see a behavior that needs encouraged, or I may see a behavior that is perfect and needs maintained/rewarded. That’s a really basic way you can begin to look at how what you see will affect what you do. You know what you want from the session; is the dog doing it right? How can I correct the dog? Could it be done better? What can make it be done better? Is it being done as good as can be expected? Better than expected? What created it? How is what I’m doing right now in this instant affecting what we want to get? Should I stop doing something? Should I do something else? Or is what I’m doing and what the dog is showing just right? When I work a dog questions like these run through my head like subconscious thought. After you’ve done training helper work long enough it becomes like a second nature, some extra sensory perception. You don’t even have to think, you just do. Your movements and body mechanics just flow with what is happening before you, reacting to what you are seeing and experiencing. Man and dog locked into a daze of drive, actions, and reactions.

I have referred to it as a little dance between man and animal because it is. There is no one partner absolutely controlling the other, but rather both feed from each other. If you as a training helper are always trying to work every dog the same exact way and always control the dog in that same direction, you are not reading the dog. You might be working him, but you are not reading him. As a helper I love to bring out behaviors in a way that makes the dog react to me in what I want, but also teaches the dog how they can control and drive me also. Having taught and shown the dog that if you come into the blind and really show me power, I have to give you a grip. I have to. You made it happen through your actions, because in the past I have read your actions correctly and rewarded them precisely and showed you how to win what you want by giving me what I demand. It basically creates a balance of reactive and active behaviors. If I do this, he does that; If he does that, I do this. Sparring partners, give and take. A good handler will trust his good helper to made a split second decision in the work based upon what they are seeing. A good protection dog for schutzhund is a team effort. There is no better feeling than watching a dog you’ve worked hard to develop go out and do well on another helper. I equate it to a proud father at a sporting event. You sit in the stands, you watch the dog have their moment in the sun, and quietly you smile knowing the role you played leading up to the day’s events.

The dog is not a dishonest animal; they do not commit to trickery. The signs and clues a dog shows you are the gospel of what that dog is in that moment, that snapshot in time. Imagine having a long conversation asking a thousand questions of a person who physically can’t lie to you or evade any of your inquiries. Think of the information to be learned! That is kind of how a person can look at reading a dog. If your asking the right question, he’s giving you the right answer, you just have to see it when it happens. Those answers come from your observations in the dogs behavior from their drive state and active/reactive response to stimuli. Like many dog training topics, this can be hard to put to words in a way that you truly get your point across. It’s much easier in person to do an action as a helper and say to the handler, “Did you see that?” and be able to explain it in that environment. Being able to see something answers so many questions. How many of us have seen a dog do something in training, and we never had to ask the handler what they’ve been doing at home? We didn’t have to, the dog told us, because we saw it. A dog can be read in two ways; visually and audibly. Physically and behaviorally the dog will give clues. These may include but are not limited to eye contact or lack of, avoidance, head position, ear position, mouth position, teeth showing/not showing, hackling, tail carry, feet position, posture, speed of movement, direction of movement, reactions and actions, timing, intensity, etc. Audibly the dog can bark high or low, or not at all. The pitch of the bark will change, the speed will change along with the consistency. The type of bark, growl, or vocalization will change depending upon the drive and what stimuli is being responded to either positively or negatively. Through these observations the dog will display if they are in defense, aggression, prey, or fight and to what level. By reading them correctly and acting/reacting accordingly, the dog may be steered or directed through the work along a guideline path to achieve the desired end result. It may be corrected with a single action or many actions. It might not need corrected at all but simply reinforced. The behavior or desired end result being sought is where this guided action ends if read correctly.

In closing, walk through these words with me; use your imagination how your senses fire as you work through and read this situation:

The helper goes into the work with a gameplan. He knows this dog and remembers from the past sessions. Working on the bark and hold-powerful barking-intensity-clarity-seriousness. That’s what we want. Not too high, under control. He begins the work stepping from around the blind, making eye contact with the dog as it nears approach, and immediately sizes up the dog’s state as the dog’s posted up by the handler and comes to a stop before him. The dog views the helper, locks eye contact back and shows excitement building. The head comes up, the tail rises and sways side to side. Pulling into the lead the feet are restless, the mouth changes. The crack of the whip and a pass auf initiates his actions against the helper with forward barking. The helper reads the dog and how well it is responding to his movements, he continues them. The dog is tracking him, wanting to come forward, restrained, but wanting to encounter. The helper wants the focus to continue, he promotes it. The helper steps side to side slowly at first, sleeve motionless against the leg, with head lowered as if to stalk the dog, and moves closer, watching how the dog watches him. There are two hunters in this game of no prey. He shows presence to the dog and tries to increase drive to get more power from the dog; and the dog gives it. Easy, he thinks, as he backs it down ever so slightly….not too much now, yes, that’s perfect. Strong, controlled. Keep doing what you’re doing he thinks. Closer now the helper inches straight forward; slowly moving the sleeve into the front, a revier command is heard over the back of the dog. Barking is more rhythmic now, done in a way that the dog feels he’s controlling the actions of the helper. Forward, powerful, throwing the bark at the helper, pounding the feet into the ground in pace with the barking. If he just keeps that barking he will win. The helper is under his spell now, drawn in like a tractor beam. Getting very close now, line is slack, powerful barking, great intensity, slightly slower helper movements to try not to make the dog dependant or too high, looking away slightly from the dog, letting the dog win. Continued barking, powerful, strong. Close enough to get dirty now, but he isn’t. Sustained. Confident. Barking hard. That’s my boy, doing good, stay on me. Neutral to the handler and the approach of the training Judge….now! now! now! The voice inside says…..