Being a “dog whisperer” – someone who seems to be able to communicate with dogs on a direct level – is something any dog owner can achieve. The idea has been popularized by the TV show “The Dog Whisperer” starring dog trainer Cesar Millan, and originates from the film The Horse Whisperer.
Now let’s go on about how to become a dog wisperer:
In this article we’ll take a look at Cesar Millan, how he operates, how you can imitate him to get good results and certain areas of his approach that you shouldn’t imitate.
We’ll also look at some general tips and techniques you can use that will allow you to communicate with your dog and understand your dog in ways that will look like a magic trick to other owners.
Cesar Millan, The Dog Whisperer
The name “dog whisperer” makes people think there’s something mystical about the process of understanding what a dog needs and wants.
Of course, this is simply not the case. A “dog whisperer” simply learns to read and understand cues a dog gives out to communicate – particular types of barking, body language postures, facial movements, and so on. This is exactly the same as the way police officers or lawyers learn to read people’s body language so they can tell when someone is lying.
Now that you know there’s nothing magical going on here, you can see it’s relatively easy for anyone to learn to be a dog whisperer.
Dog whisperer Cesar Millan is probably the most famous dog trainer in the world right now. While he has been widely praised for getting results with problem dogs, he has also come under a lot of criticism for some of the methods he uses.
In particular he has been criticized for his use of punishment and physical dominance over the dogs he trains. Millan’s method are based on the idea of becoming the “pack leader” for your dog, an idea which has now spread widely but which is often interpreted the wrong way.
There are good reasons for the criticism of the Dog Whisperer’s use of physical punishment and dominating behavior. While his methods can produce results in problematic dogs, they’re usually overkill in dogs with relatively minor behavior problems and end up causing more problems than they fix. This is the aftermath of his dog obedience training methods that you don’t see on a half-hour TV episode.
One of the most criticized aspects of Millan’s dog training method is the way he kicks dogs. Millan explains this as being a method for distraction, rather than a way to inflict physical punishment. While distraction away from problem behaviors is a very useful technique, I believe there are much more effective ways to achieve this other than kicking – for example, a squirt from a water pistol. The kicking method can easily be overdone by owners who don’t really understand that the goal is to distract, not inflict injury. And in fact the way Millan himself uses this method often appears to cause unnecessary pain in the dogs he trains.
All in all, while Millan’s underlying idea that you need to establish yourself as the “pack leader” in order to train a problem dog is correct, I often don’t agree with how he goes about achieving that. I recommend you stick to methods which are much more focused around rewarding good behavior, rather than directly punishing bad behavior. This is assuming you have a reasonably normal, well-socialized dog. With dogs that have not been socialized properly and have deeply ingrained bad habits, you may have to rely on techniques involving physical force in order to get results. But if this is the situation you find yourself in, you need to start looking at getting a professional dog trainer in. Trying to “do it yourself” in this case will likely lead to more problems.
The issue isn’t really whether hitting and physically punishing dogs “works” to change behavior. It can certainly stop some problem behaviors. But it can also open up a whole Pandora’s Box of other problem behaviors, and the point is it simply isn’t necessary for most dogs. Only a very small percentage of dogs have “extreme” problem behaviors. The majority can be trained and dealt with using positive dog training methods that focus on rewarding.
Reading Your Dog’s Body Language
Being able to pick up on body language signals from your dog is incredibly important if you want to become a dog whisperer and be successful in dog training, especially with problems like aggression. When you become good at reading your dog’s body language you’ll be able to:
predict if and when your dog will act aggressively
understand what is causing problem behaviors – boredom, excess energy, etc.
know when your dog is hungry, needs to go to the toilet, or needs a drink
more accurately spot signs that your dog may be sick
identify a wide range of emotions in your dog – happiness, eagerness to play, tiredness, fear and so on.
Although humans are blessed with the ability to use language, a huge amount of our communication still happens through body language. Think about this in your own interactions with people. How much communication comes from the way they stand and their facial expression? Even when they’re talking, the meaning of what they say is largely influenced by the tone of their voice, not just the content of what they’re saying. (Think of the difference between someone making a serious statement and someone else making the same statement in a sarcastic tone. The words can be the same but produce opposite meanings.)
With dogs, this is all the communication they have – they don’t have words to fall back on. They express themselves through their body language and through tone (the way they bark). I’m not suggesting they do all this is a deliberate attempt to “talk” to people – sometimes they do it on purpose, but usually this communication is based on instinct and is totally unconscious. A dog reacts to something in the environment, and you can learn to understand that reaction if you understand the body language.
So let’s take a look at a few common body language gestures and their meanings. This isn’t a complete list, but if you learn these you’ll be lightyears ahead of other dog owners when it comes to understanding why your dog behaves in a certain way.
1. Rolling over on her back. Many owners interpret this as being an invitation for a belly rub. While some dogs do like belly rubs, there’s actually a more negative meaning that goes with this body language – this is what dogs do when submitting to a more dominant animal. If your dog has a tendency to roll over when you stare at her or loom over her, it’s quite possibly because she feels you’re exerting dominance over her. This should be of particular note if your dog is currently having trouble with problem behaviors like submissive urination.
2. Bowing with raised tail. This is usually called the “play bow” because that’s exactly what it indicates – a desire to play. The front legs flatten to the ground in front of the dog and the rear arches up, usually with the tail wagging. Sometimes accompanied by excited barking.
3. Lying down relaxed. You don’t have to be an animal psychology expert to read this one – when your dog lies down with her legs splayed out, she’s taking a break and relaxing.
4. Ears pricked up, tail down. This is an alertness stance. It means your dog has become aware of something in the environment, but hasn’t necessarily identified that as a threat. For example, this is one you’ll often see when your dog has spotted a cat or another “critter” that might be considered “prey” for a wild dog. (Of course that won’t be the case if you have socialized your dog with cats or other animals from an early age.)
5. Ears pulled back and down, tail between legs. It’s easy to get confused between this and the alertness stance because of the tail position. Many owners mistakenly think any time a dog’s tail is between her legs it means something like shame – this is the way it’s commonly seen by the general public. But in reality, when the tail goes between the legs but the front of the body is raised and the ears pricked up, it’s showing alertness. When the ears go back or flatten to the head, accompanied with the tail between the legs and a stooping of the whole body posture, it’s an indication of fear or anxiety. This is a good one to know because often aggression is a fear-based reaction, so spotting fear signals allows you to take steps to prevent an aggressive situation.
6. Teeth bared, ears pulled back, growling. This is classic aggressive behavior and a sign you need to try to defuse the situation as quickly as possible. Any sudden movements around a dog showing this behaviors could lead to aggression. The aggression may be directed toward another dog or animal, a specific person, or anyone in the general area (this last one is often the case with a wounded dog, for instance).
7. Chest forward, ears up, standing tall. This is a dominant posture. It’s one a dog will often adopt when meeting another dog for the first time, while trying to figure out if this might be an enemy or a potential playmate.
So here’s what I suggest you do with this information: start paying careful attention to your dog’s body language. Make a mental note each time you notice one of these body language signals, and use them to understand what is causing your dog to behave in certain ways. When you pay attention to your dog’s body language, you’ll start to notice certain patterns – for example, whenever a certain tall family member approaches your dog, she rolls over on her back because she’s being submissive. You can then relate these observations to problem behaviors your dog might have, and this can even help you predict when problem behaviors might happen. For example, you may be able to stop submissive urinating in the house by recognizing signs of submissiveness and fear, just as you can prevent aggressive behavior towards another dog by recognizing fear or dominant bullying body language.
How to Communicate with Your Dog
Alright – so now you have a pretty good grasp on how to understand what your dog wants and needs by reading her body language. But that’s only half the process of becoming a dog whisperer. So far you can “listen” to your dog through her body language – but you can’t talk back. How to communicate with your dog is the next essential step in becoming a dog whisperer, and that’s what we’ll cover now.
There are two main ways you can communicate with your dog: hand signals and voice commands. But before you start with either, it’s important to remember that you’re working with a “blank slate.” Your dog won’t understand anything you do or say based on instinct. You’re a human, she’s a dog – your instincts are totally different. It’s only through many decades of domesticated living that dogs have become able to learn to understand human communication. But that’s the important point: they have to learn it. It’s not built in. And that means you have to be the teacher.
The basic idea behind dog training is called “conditioning.” Basically, it means associating one thing (a behavior) with another thing (a command or gesture) through rewards and punishment. As I’ve already said, you’ll have much better results over all if you focus on rewarding good behavior.
The basic idea of conditioning goes like this: If you say “Sit,” then get your dog to sit down and immediately reward her for it, and repeat that process over and over again, you’ll eventually build up associations in the dog’s brain. You’ll build up the thought process that when she hears the word “Sit” she should sit down, and she’ll get a treat for doing so. The other element you need here is something to mark the good behavior – this could be a clicker device, or simply a word like “Good.” The marker should be said (or clicked) the moment the dog does the behavior you want (in this case, sitting down).
So the basic dog obedience training process goes:
1. Create the behavior (can be done through luring the dog’s movement or physically moving her)
2. Mark the behavior
3. Reward the behavior
4. Attach a command or signal to the behavior, so you can trigger it at will
Now let’s look more at the specifics of using hand signals and using verbal commands.
Communicating Through Hand Signals
Most people don’t use hand signals for dog obedience training these days, but they can be useful in some cases and are handy if you want to be a true dog whisperer. If you really want to train your dog to a high level I recommend you work with both hand gestures and voice commands. Hand signals come in handy in some cases where voice commands are less effective.
Personally I believe one of the advantages of hand signals is that they carry more “intuitive” meaning for some dogs. For example, next time your dog comes rushing toward you try holding your hand out, palm facing your dog, like a “Stop” signal if you were directing traffic. You dog might just go ahead and sniff your hand, but some dogs will instantly understand this and stop in their tracks.
Likewise, hand movements like pointing don’t really require much teaching. You can direct your dog’s attention by pointing at things, without having to go through a process to make her understand, “When I point at something you pay attention to it.” So those are a couple of ways hand signals can come in handy.
Dog Whisperer Tips: Communicating Through Voice Commands
Voice commands will make up the bulk of your communication with your dog. Of course, you’ll use different commands for different behaviors so there’s no point in getting into those here – what I want to talk about instead are a few general tips for making your voice commands effective.
First of all, remember what I already said about how your voice tone can change the meaning of what you say when you’re talking to another person? The same is true when you’re talking to your dog. When you want to convey authority, use a firm tone. When you want to convey excitement, like when you’re telling your dog to fetch something, let that come through in your voice.
Keep your verbal commands short and to the point. Commands should be one word and preferably one syllable (sit, stay, down, come, off, and so on). Also try very hard not to use two words that sound similar for different things. Remember – you can use any word you want for any behavior. You don’t have to use “Sit” to tell your dog to sit. You could use the word “Green” if you really wanted to. Your dog doesn’t sit because she understands the meaning of the word, she sits because you’ve built a connection between a particular word and a particular action. What that word is doesn’t really matter – it’s the connection that matters.
That said, to be a true dog whisperer you also have to be careful not to use words that you’ll often use around the house for other purposes, such as when you’re talking to your family. Otherwise you might end up with your dog doing all kinds of tricks while you’re having an everyday conversation (although most dogs are smart enough to know when you’re talking to them and when you’re talking to someone else).
Altogether you should now have a pretty strong arsenal for becoming a dog whisperer. You know why it’s not a great idea to simply imitate what you see on TV shows Cesar Millan’s The Dog Whisperer. And you also now know a lot more about reading your dog’s communication, and communicating back, than a huge majority of dog owners. So good luck with building a stronger connection and creating a happy, well-behaved dog!
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