Be more dog. A few simple secrets to better understanding & training your spaniel

Do you speak Dog? I know, I know, odd question to ask… But bear with me.

A few days ago, as we finished our little training session, I wondered how much my perception of training has changed over the years. Once upon a time training a pup a few basic commands felt, well, basic… Nothing much. Treats, gestures, cues – job done! 

But as the years passed by and the volume of digested books, studies, courses and experiences settled in my brain, I realised a simple thing – training a dog – and especially COMMUNICATING your idea to the dog effectively – is far from simple, rrrrrrreally far from simple.

More often than not (and here I am talking about regular pup parents like you and me, not professional trainers) getting a pup from A to Z feels like a three step process: the treats and lure, the results and the added cue or gesture or both. Creatively speaking, we see training as Malevich’s Black Square. 

For a typical dog, on the other hand, our efforts are likely to resemble something painted by Dali…

The smell. The dog smells all the distrastive, often invisitable to us, thing around him. He also knows that you have treats in your pocket. He knows what sort of treats they are. He smells your emotions. 

The taste. It makes the brain happy. And the pleasure should be immediate otherwise there’s no point. 

The sight. He watches you most intensly than you’d dare to know. For a dog, it’s not such a cue -> a treat link. It’s also everything in between (it’s known as bridging if you want to be clever). The position of your body, your hand, your eyes, facial expression, any movement you might make, the spot where the treat is placed and received. All these matter to him and will be remembered carefully because  he needs to remember exactly what, when and how gets him the treat.

The sound. Dogs are a creatures of a few words. They like it simple. The first word is to get attention. The second one is to determine an action. High pitched sounds can mean excitement or alarm. Longer (stretched like legato in music, think “staaaay” or “gooood boooy”) words are to slow down, calm, stay still, relax… 

The emotions. Happiness, fear, excitement, stress – all these emotions cause a burst of different hormones that will have an effect on the pup’s ability to concentrate, learn and remember. 

What does it all mean?

For me, communicating an idea to a dog successfully involves a few simple but important points…

… only train when you feel happy, relaxed and well (otherwise the dog will sniff out our own hormones, especially stress hormones – and will mimic them)

… only train when a dog is happy to be trained – he is rested, happy, adventurous, excited and eager to learn

… keep the duration of training based on your dog’s abilities. Do not let him get tired or bored. Think how you’d feel if you were made to sit through a two hour lecture – even if it’s really interesting in the beginning, the brain often gives up on living after an hour unless there’s a break

… watch your own body language – record your sessions if necessary

… use the right tone of your voice depending on what you want to achieve and, please, do not get into the “machine gun”mode saying to your dog “sit, sit, sit, sit” or “come, come, come, come” on repeat. One word – long pause – another word if needed. Otherwise your pup will just hear “comecomecomecomecoooooome” the same way we hear “yap-yap-yap-yap” – it’s just another meaningless and slighly irritating noise…

… choose treats wisely. You don’t need to have a whole bag of high value treats! Mix them up! I use kibble, but if we need high value or more attention, add a few tiny pieces of cooked chicken breast and mix them all up. The kibble get a bit of an extra “flavour”. Everyone is happy

… be precise. Reward within 1-2 seconds with easy-to-swallow tiny treats, with precise action, at precise spot and accompanied by specific word and specific praise. Eventually the praise will (or almost will) replace the treat teasing the pleasure center in the brain with a sound alone. 

Simple? Yes, once you know the why’s and how-to’s. Now all you need to do is to remember these points while putting them into action. And that’s when things suddenly get as complicated as learning and practising a foreign language. It takes an effort but suddenly and eventually everything falls into place.

Image credit: Salvador Dali. Feather Equilibrium. 1947

Dogs tend to play more with each other when their owners watch them, eye contact and engage / Perfect cocker spaniel (C) Canine behaviour study, english cocker spaniel dog blog, puppy tips, behaviour, spaniel grooming, cocker spaniel health

Watch me if you can

I love watching my boys play. In all honesty, I could do it all day long – if only they felt like playing all day long. Seeing them happy and carefree is my source of endorphins. And now it turns out, my presence does a lot of good for pups, too.

According to a study published in Animal Cognition magazine, our dogs are more likely to play with each other if we pay attention to them instead of leaving them alone completely or simply being present in a room.

The researchers observed 10 pairs of dogs who lived together for at least 6 months and were known to play with each other at least once a day. During the study, the dog parents did not use toys or encourage them to play specifically.

But whenever a person was around offering eye contact and occasional praise, the dogs were much more likely to start playing and having fun. The situation was different when a person was not in the room or was present but stared at his phone or computer screen.

The scientists suggested that this dog behaviour might have been caused by several factors including potentially seeking owner’s attention in a manner of little kids, feeling safer, hoping that the owner would join in, or possibly having a release of oxytocin or the “love hormone”.

This is a type of study that “leads to a lot more questions than answers”, but it is obvious that being with our dogs, being present when they seek our attention, is a wonderful way to make them happy and strengthen the bond between us and our pups.

Just like the immortal lyrics go… “Every single day… every game you play… I’ll be watching you…”

Photo credit: by Elizabeth Clark / I am family photography

study shows effects of different types of music on dogs / music to help anxious dogs relax / Perfect cocker spaniel (C) Dog blog about English cocker spaniels, dog behaviour, diet, nutrition, health, puppy tips (C) Natalia Ashton

The sound of music. Study shows, our pooches have their preferences too.

I came across a curious study the other day and wanted to share it here. I have mentioned the effect of music on my pups in the past, so it was interesting to see some research into the subject.

The work was conducted in 2020 and examined several previous studied that involved dogs of various breeds and age groups placed in different environments.

The first interesting bit of the study for me was the possible difference between breeds and their physical characteristics suggesting that dogs with pointy ears might perceive any music sounds differently compared to dogs with floppy ears. Which, of course, makes sense, but not something I’d think of immediately.

The second discovery was about the type of music. Several studies showed that dogs preferred classical music to rock or pop music. The dogs exposed to the classical music began acting more calm, seemed more relaxed and less prone to barking, and their heart rate appeared reduced.

On the other hand, rock music increased excitement, became more vocal and showed increased in stress hormone levels.

Does it mean, we could use some soft classical music as another way to reduce anxiety and stress in our dogs? Absolutely. Just bear in mind that you may need to change your play list every 5-7 days to maintain the positive effects.

I guess it’s time for a drink and some Chopin now.