Guide Dog Class Lecture: Communicating with Your Guide Dog
How do we communicate with a dog? It requires focus on what you are saying to the dog and what the dog is telling you. Dogs are very observant and quickly learn what they can expect from you. Do not assume that words are the most important bridge to communication. Dogs pick up on non-verbal cues that you might not even be conscious of, and in turn, you must be aware of signals that your dog projects. Though learning this inter-species language may be new to you, you will appreciate the satisfaction of communication that is based on clear and consistent interactions.
Communication tools we use are:
- Voice - both words and tone.
- Body positions and movements.
- Reinforcement – food rewards and praise.
- Leash gestures – directional indication with slack leash (no collar contact);
- Collar cues – directional indication using low-key collar engagement (not corrective);
- Collar corrections – short and abrupt pressure and release on the collar.
Consistency is crucial in communicating clearly with a dog. Dogs do not understand inconsistent rules or expectations. After experiencing initial confusion or frustration, dogs can actually become indifferent or anxious towards someone handling them inconsistently. For instance, allowing a dog to jump up on you when you have on old clothes means to the dog that it is always okay to jump up on you.... even when you are in your best clothes. Dogs do not understand that a certain behavior is okay only “some of the time.” A random reprimand would not be fair, and unreliable signals from you may result in your dog “tuning you out.”
Understanding the Power of Reinforcement
There are two types of positive reinforcers, primary and secondary. Primary reinforcers are typically consequences that satisfy basic biological needs. Food, sex, warmth, and sleep can each act as reinforcers. Primary reinforcers are extremely powerful tools in shaping behavior. The primary reinforcer we most commonly use with Guide Dogs is food.
You will learn to use food rewards during class. The nuances of an unfamiliar handler’s communication may take a while for a dog to understand, but there is no confusion about food. Food equals pleasure. Because a guide dog has to work and be attentive around food during guidework (such as in restaurants or walking through food courts at shopping malls) using food rewards with a guide dog requires specialized techniques to avoid behavior problems around food.
Secondary reinforcers are consequences that must be strongly linked to primary reinforcers to be effective. In other words, a secondary reinforcer is heavily dependent on its association with, and expectation of, future primary reinforcement. Secondary reinforcers are not intrinsically satisfying by themselves, but have come to symbolize and promise a more valuable reward to come. Money is a secondary reinforcer for us. The sight of a favorite toy, a friendly pat on the shoulder, the sound of a clicker– these are all learned secondary reinforcers for our dogs.
The key to secondary reinforcers is that they must be learned. One should not assume that a dog will automatically associate praise with pleasure. Initially, constant pairing of primary reinforcement (food) with secondary reinforcement (verbal or physical praise) will build up a pleasurable response to the praise. Food reward will pave the way for the dog’s willingness to bond in the relationship. As the relationship progresses, praise can be pleasurable on its own without requiring constant accompaniment of food.
The relationship between the handler and the dog is an important element in determining whether a consequence is actually reinforcing. Think of the warm embrace from a spouse after he/she discovers you have emptied the dishwasher. How about if a co-worker took you into their arms when you empty the dishwasher in the employee lunchroom? The hug would reinforce your behavior in the first scene, perhaps not so much in the second. Observing how your dog is actually reacting to physical contact and/or verbal input should inform your choices of interaction as you get to know your dog.
A good handler can convey real pleasure to a dog through appropriate food reward and meaningful praise, motivating their dog to want to please. Guiding a person who is vision impaired is a big responsibility for a dog. No dog will continue to work without reinforcement. Just as you expect to be acknowledged for your accomplishments, so does your guide dog.
We use positive reinforcement with food rewards and physical/verbal praise to let the dog know when they are correct. We can use our voice (“No” spoken in a brief, firm tone), the withholding of reinforcement (time-outs), or collar corrections to let the dog know when he or she is incorrect.
Effective handling immediately stops incorrect behavior. The handler then has an opening to request another behavior in exchange for the unwanted one. When used, the spoken word “no” is quick and must be respected by the dog to be effective. The collar correction is also very rapid. Time- outs are neutral and interrupt all progress. However you choose to handle your dog’s mistake, these episodes end with the dog refocused and getting positive feedback (praise and/or food reward) for the correct behavior.
Verbal cues request a specific response to be performed if safe to do so.
Guidework cues are verbal ‘requests’ from the handler to the dog. Every time a guide dog is cued to advance, the handler is really asking the dog “Is it safe to proceed?” Even though you are asking a question, you don’t want to make your verbal cue sound tentative. Using a questioning tone (“Forward?”) may cause the dog to hesitate and feel you are not sure of yourself. Many handlers choose to briefly touch the back of their dog’s neck before issuing a verbal cue. This gentle touch demonstrates that you are thinking of the dog, and may inform you where his head is and what the dog may be thinking. Your touch also alerts your dog that you might be asking him to do something. When you are certain that your dog is receptive, deliver your next guidework verbal cue. Speak assertively to let your dog know you are confident in yourself; “Juno, Forward”. Occasionally, when you give a guidework verbal cue, your dog may need to disobey it for your own safety. We call this “intelligent disobedience”.
Avoid Repeating Yourself
Stay away from unnecessarily repeating yourself to your dog. Repeating the dog’s name and verbal cues over and over will result in the dog ignoring you. Give one clearly stated verbal cue to your dog. Say the dog’s name (only one time) before the cue. Respond appropriately to your dog’s action, or inaction.
Good timing is very important. As soon as you realize your dog has responded well, reinforce that response with praise (and food reward, if appropriate). The shorter the amount of time between a behavior and the presentation of positive reinforcement, the stronger the connection will be. If a long period of time elapses between the behavior and the reinforcement, the weaker the connection will be. It also becomes more likely that an intervening behavior might accidentally be reinforced. The same is true for lack of proper response. Give the dog time to respond to the verbal cue, and as soon as you realize the dog is not responding as they should ... impose a consequence (time-out or correction, as is appropriate). Remember to reward once the dog responds correctly.
The Verbal Cue “Sit”
Another way to communicate with your dog is to “read” his body language to gauge what they may be thinking. You can do this by having your dog sit at your left side. Touch the back of your dog’s neck. Is your dog’s gaze forward or is he swiveling his neck to watch some action behind him? Are the ears soft or are they upright in excitement? Is his nose where it ought to be? A “sit” can be used anytime you question your dog’s attention. During guidework you would “halt” and cue “sit”, in order to evaluate your dog’s response.
Communicating effectively with your dog requires that YOU (the human) be attentive to the dog and your own actions. Often, dogs do exactly what we tell them to do. We as handlers need to focus on what we are communicating to ensure we receive the responses and behaviors that we want.
Good communication is essential for trust to build within a team. And it takes time. Yet, if your dog knows what is expected and you consistently acknowledge behavior with fair input, your dog will more quickly learn to trust you. Equally, if you are committed to being clear in your messages, then your dog will have the information they need to respond with good decisions. As a result, you will learn to trust your dog as your guide.
You can stream the audio of the class lecture here, via a Soundcloud widget. If using a screen reader, please select the "Play" option below.