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Body Language

© copyright Anthea Lawrence

Please leave some comments in the guest book if you find this article helpful (or unhelpful)!

The things we say!

The language used by dogs is mainly that of body language with a few verbal noises.

The language used by humans is predominantly verbal but we also use a great deal of body language, often without realising we are so doing.

When we communicate with dogs most of use a whole dictionary of chat and, whilst there is nothing wrong with this, dogs really don't understand a great deal of what we're saying but develop great skill in interpreting things by using the circumstances and our body language to fathom out what will happen next. From the plethora of words, actions, time of day, what has happened on previous occasions when all these things came together and the sounds to accompany the circumstances, dogs appear to 'know' or are able at least to understand the 'what happens next' bit.

This is how we, and dogs, live together and although humans may feel 'he knows every word I say' that, regrettably in many ways, is not the case although it's probably true that dogs understand a lot of what we do or are about to do. They learn rapidly the circumstances which result in something which is of benefit to them (go for a walk, be given food) but learn, equally, the circumstances leading to something they would rather not do or they would rather didn't happen (we're going out but they are not, having a bath).

For training purposes, as we're teaching our verbal language to dogs 'as a foreign language', we must pay great attention to certain factors: have one word (or group of 2-3 words always used together) used consistently for the action we teach the dog. This may seem simple but often it proves to be a great problem for handlers and consequently it becomes a huge problem for a dog. Firstly we must say a training word in exactly the same tone of voice every, single, time. Humans tend to say a training word in a very good tone of voice on occasions but then they lose the plot and say the word in a cross tone, a laughing tone and many tones in between or they forget to say the word at all and somehow expect a dog to know what's required!

Now of course, many dogs do know what is expected of them but not, regrettably, due to our abysmal verbal clue but due to the body language we use, without having previously known we were using body language, to accompany that particular training word or sometimes to indicate our mood (i.e. we're cross so say the training word as a punishment.)

When humans talk to humans we're using body language, often in equal amounts to our verbal language. I'm probably the world's worst as I find it impossible to talk without using my hands. As far as I'm aware, the humans with whom I'm speaking, don't find this irritating!!! When I'm communicating with a dog however, I have to be very careful and always try not to add body language to most commands other than those commands to which I purposely add body language such as for directional commands which require a dog to go further away from me or out the left or right.

If we are not aware of our body language and think we're teaching a dog a verbal word but use that word in a different tone of voice then a dog will ignore the verbal word and gain information from our body language. Humans are almost 100% accurate and consistent with their body language, as too are dogs. Humans are largely unaware of their consistency in this respect but dogs are not.

You may be asking yourself why his matters and saying that if we are consistent in our body language, then surely this is of benefit to the dog? The answer is that it would not matter if we knew what we were doing and were not trying to teach dogs our verbal language. As we don't and as we are, it matters!

The major problem for dogs when trying to learn some of our verbal language is that we are inconsistent (i.e. use a different word whch means the same thing to us), use a tone of voce which distorts the sound of the word/s we're trying to teach and use (without realising it) a lot of body language. Because of these facts and because a dogs' first language is body language, a dog will try to make sense of what we're saying by trying to interpret the body language first and thus doesn't learn the verbal word we think we're teaching. Humans then, thinking they've taught the word, feel the dog is being disobedient or not very intelligent whereas the reality, is that we have not taught and the dog has not learnt.

For training purposes, try to minimise your body language and get rid of everything the dog doesn't need such as movements of your body, head and feet which could distract your dog and prevent it from learning the specific word you're trying to teach. Try to restrict words to a minimum of one, or sometimes two linked together, to represent one specific action for the dog and never use an alernative word. Dogs can't cope with synonyms!

If you're unsure about what you may be doing, ask someone to watch you and point out your unnecessary body language, watch other people and start to recognise in others what they're doing. Once you see what you and others are doing, which is unnecessary, then you'll begin to see the problems with which dogs have to cope in their dealings with us. You will then be better equipped to monitor yourself.

Anthea Lawrence


© copyright Anthea Lawrence

Please leave some comments in the guest book if you find this article helpful, or even if you don't find it helpful!

The job of a working gundog, which has retrieving as one of its roles, is to search for, and find, shot and wounded game and deliver it tenderly to hand.

That's a very simple sentence but how much do we consider all the points it contains? The last line of the sentence is, quite simply, almost everything we want from a working gundog but, as we all know, achieving those few points can sometimes take several years (sometimes several dogs) and many things can go wrong!

For the purposes of this article I am going to address the last point of 'delivering tenderly to hand', mainly because delivery is frequently an aspect which some dogs just don't do in a satisfactory manner either in the 'to hand' aspect or, indeed, to the 'tenderly' aspect either.

To hand: this means that the dog, having found a bird/dummy or anything else for which it has been sent by the handler ( i.e. has something in its mouth) is required to return to the handler, quickly, by the most direct route, come to a halt in front of the handler, hold its head up and present the item to the handler.

The dog, should the handler not be in a position to take hold of the item immediately, must continue to hold the item, must remain in front of the handler and must wait until the handler is ready to hold the item and give the release command. Only then may the dog relinquish the item and having done so, the dog must remain in front of the handler until given further instructions.

Tenderly: this means that the dog must take care of the item it has in its mouth and do nothing which could damage it in any way. The item, when training, will not necessarily be a game bird but dummies, balls, toys etc. must be treated as though they are birds and birds are food for humans. The only justification for shooting birds, in my opinion, is that they are used as food. They are living creatures for which we should show due care and attention from the start of their lives through to the time when they are dead and prepared for human consumption. They deserve our respect and care and should be shown that respect by ourselves and the dogs which help us to bring that food to the table.

One could argue that we don't have to respect a tennis ball, soft toy or canvas dummy but it is at these stages, when using such items to teach a dog its future role, that aspects of respect and care need to be addressed by ourselves in order for us to show dogs in training the necessary standards expected.


I prefer to teach young dogs all aspects of 'to hand' and 'tenderly' very early in their training long before a dog leaves my side to do a 'retrieve'. For many people retrieving is all about throwing something, sending the dog for the item thrown and then hoping the dog will find it, pick it up and return to the handler. Doing it that way is guaranteed to create problems!

For numerous handlers who have done it in this way problems will already be evident. Sometimes there is only one problem and sometimes there are many problems and these are not the fault of the dog but because a handler has not taken the time to teach the dog exactly what is required and has largely left it to the dog to decide how it will complete numerous aspects of the retrieve. The dog's way will usually be far from the ideal! The longer the dog has done it his or her way then the more the dog will believe that his way is the way the handler wants it to be even if the handler gets increasingly cross and frustrated at the apparently 'stupid' dog!

If your dog retrieves and ever fails either to deliver to hand or tenderly in the way described above then first of all you need to acknowledge that there is a problem, however small that may be, and then you need to begin re-training the dog so that the dog learns how you want these aspects to be in the future.

Doing nothing is not an option because the problems will not get better on their own, they will either stay the same or get worse. Making excuses is not a viable option either! I've probably heard all the reasons handlers tell me about why their dog drops a dummy, hasn't learnt to stop in front of the handler, wont hold onto a dummy for very long, only drops dummies when coming out of water, never does it with birds etc. etc. I therefore repeat 'If your dog retrieves and ever fails either to deliver to hand or tenderly in the way described above' then there is a problem and the day you acknowledge that is the day when you can start to teach your dog what you would actually like him to do instead of the way he does it now!

We'll assume that you have found one or more problems in your self-assessment of your dog and now want to do something to begin the process of curing the problems once and for all so that your dog begins to understand what you want from him now instead of him assuming that what he does now is what you want.

The first thing to consider is that the solution to any problems regarding delivery never lies at the point where the problem is seen. The solution to the problem always lies much further back in the dog's training history and, for this reason, you need to go right back to the point where a dog learns about having something in its mouth.

For those who try and tackle the problem at the point where the problem is seen, what they will do is throw endless dummies for the dog on land and in water, send the dog and then encounter the delivery problem every time the dog returns with the dummy. What that tactic does is give the dog dozens of opportunities to go racing around or lots of swims to retrieve dummies, which is not the training issue that needs addressing but it, more importantly, continues the delivery problems.

Practice makes permanent! The more you practice the bits which aren't quite right, the more the problems are cemented into place in the dog's mind and the longer it will take to solve the problems and change the behaviour of the dog to something more in keeping with your requirements.

One of the reasons so many people have dogs with delivery problems is that they begin a gundog's career by throwing a ball, dummy or a toy for a young puppy and take great delight in seeing a young dog chasing after something. On occasions, some pups will pick up the item and on fewer occasions some pups will return somewhere near the handler. The new owner of the pup is invariably delighted at this 'natural ability' and can't wait to repeat the whole experience as soon as they can - usually the next day or within a few hours! Thus practicing, already, things which are less than perfect and leading the puppy to believe that, as his owner is so delighted, he's doing what his owner wants him to do.

Therein lies the root of all delivery problems and often there are a few other problems being built in for good measure such as unsteadiness! One is also encouraging a puppy to do things which you will later want to stop him doing - that's called 'dog breaking'.

Of course a puppy will chase after a ball or a toy. This is called the 'chase instinct' and nearly all mammals have this instinct, which developed thousands of years ago, as without it they would have starved to death as they would not have been able to find other creatures to eat. Because it's an instinct it will not disappear if you don't get it switched on too early and I much prefer to teach numerous other things to a puppy before I allow it to chase or hunt. In that way I can control the chase instinct and use it for my benefit to find, eventually, shot and wounded game and, in training, allow the dog to develop its own style (still under my control) which I can increasingly shape once the basics are in place.


Before I suggest how you can begin I'll show you a few photos of two training session I did 2 weeks and a few days ago. I am fortunate in that ever since I began training a puppy to understand what having something in their mouth means, I haven't had any delivery problems no matter from where the dog has retrieved i.e. land or water. That does not mean I teach it once and then not bother to do it any more. It means I have specific sessions where holding something is a vital part of the training. This is also a vital part of working two or more dogs together when picking up as my dogs sometimes have to queue up with birds they've retrieved until I'm able to take birds from individual dogs.

On these particular sessions I took Connie and Nénu out together for a short training session. Nénu was staying for the weekend and as she sometimes comes picking up with me, she needs to work alongside my dogs.

None of these photos were posed and all were taken in the course of the short training sessions.

No deliveries, by either of the dogs, were ever taken by me as soon as a dog returned to me and I did not lunge forward to grab a dummy as soon as a dog arrived in the present position (Yes, even from the water!) Instead, I praised the dog and left her sitting there whilst I did something with the other dog.

Sometimes I left one dog sitting holding the dummy and sent the other dog to retrieve, sometimes I kept both dogs waiting with dummies in their mouths whilst I walked away, on occasions going back and praising each dog, on other occasions re-calling one dog and expecting the other dog to remain in a sit holding the dummy.

Sometimes I returned to a dog and touched the dummy in her mouth but did not take it. In other words everything was very controlled, never rushed and neither dog knew what would happen next. What each dog had to do was very clearly stated by me and was a simple command either in terms of a directional command to go and retrieve, a recall command, a 'sit' command or a 'hold' command. No other words were used other than each dog's name (because I was working two dogs) and reminder commands of 'sit' and 'hold' together with lots of praise for doing or continuing to do what I had asked.

Above all, each dog had to listen to what I was saying, had to obey me and was instantly praised for everything she did in accordance with my wishes. Neither dog was anxious, neither dog was in any doubt what she must do. Yes, both made small mistakes on occasions but these were corrected immediately and the specific dog given some help, followed by a chance to try again.

I enjoyed the training session but, that apart, it was meaningful in terms of addressing a specific area of training and not a session where one just throws dummies and lets the dogs retrieve them. That would not training!

What to do and how to do it.

If you have a dog who fails to deliver to hand no more than once in every million then some of the above would be useful every now and again just to make sure your dog continues to understand your rules.

For everyone else you should aim to give the solution to the problem your full attention for a week or two and that should mean no retrieving!

Aim to teach your dog a 'hold' command. Even if you think your dog knows the command, the fact that you have a delivery problem means, in reality, that the dog does not know what the command means so this needs to be taught first.

Quite simply the command to the dog means 'hold something in your mouth and keep it in your mouth until I (the handler) take hold of the item and give you the release command of give/dead.

How to teach. (See: Teaching the 'hold' command in'Training the Working Retriever' for more details)

You should arm yourself with some kind of toy which your dog has never seen before (charity shops!). It should be fairly small in diameter but be long enough to poke out of the dog's mouth at each end so you can easily take hold of it with 2 hands. Don't use a dummy because your dog has already got problems with delivering a dummy and the idea is to provide some new thoughts on the whole aspect of holding something and replace the old with the new. Once the dog is behaving in the way you want you can start to wean the dog off the toys and gradually replace dummies.

This toy is yours but you will allow the dog to play the 'hold' game with you although it is by your rules. I find it best to do this indoors and you can either sit on the floor or on a chair and have the dog sit in front of you. Gently open the dog's mouth and put the toy in the dog's mouth saying 'hold' as you do so. Almost immediately, take the toy in both hands and give the release command and instantly praise the dog as though he'd just won the retriever championship!

The first time you do this, do it once only and then put the toy away in your drawer not the dog's kennel or toy box! You should aim to do this on as many occasions as you can throughout the day but only once each time for the first few attempts, gradually increasing to 3 or 4 times each session. Do not give the 'hold' command and wait for the dog to take the item (or in many cases wait for the dog not to take the item!) You must open the mouth each time and say the 'hold' word only when it's in the dog's mouth.

Be very, very careful to open the mouth gently and also ensure that the dog's lips are not caught between his teeth and the toy. These two factors are extremely important because any pain or discomfort will form bad associations with the 'hold' command instead of good ones. It is also very important to use a friendly tone of voice for the 'hold' command too. The 'hold' command, like every other command cannot be used as a punishment it's a doing word for the dog, something you want the dog to do, and therefore has to be said in a normal tone of voice.

I can't say how many days you need to do this exercise in the same way with your dog because that will depend on the dog, how many months/years the dog has had delivery problems, how good and patient a teacher you are. If in doubt go on a bit longer!

When you get to the stage that the dog will willingly hold the toy then you need to increase the length of time the dog will hold it but you must praise the dog continuously and also repeat the hold command in between praising. It also helps if you scratch the dog's chest between the front legs as in many dogs this is a calming area and it also makes the dog lift its head up and many close their eyes with the ecstasy of it all! Stay very close to the dog and look for an sign that the dog is about to, or could, drop the dummy and pre-empt that by reminding 'hold' and perhaps gently putting your hand under the chin.

If the toy does drop to the floor you can't do anything about it other than learn and watch more carefully. You cannot punish a dog for the fact that a dummy has landed on the floor or ground. You may, on occasions if you're quick enough, punish the thinking about dropping it, by growling, and then reminding 'hold'.

I've seen so many handlers punishing dogs concerning the fact that the dummy has landed on the ground and they do this by shouting at the dog, picking the dummy up themselves and ramming it into the dog's mouth and shouting 'HOLD'. I've never seen these methods work in terms of the dog learning to hold a dummy and the reasons it doesn't work are these: at least 4 punishments are being used i.e. shouting, ramming the dummy in the mouth, hurting the dog's lips and teeth and shouting a command word. All these actions by the handler punish the dog, not for dropping it, but punish the dog for holding it as the punishments continue whilst the dog again has the dummy in its' mouth. That is why these methods do not work and will not solve the problem.

I believe that a dog has no idea about cause and effect in relation to holding something and the fact that that item arrives on the ground but that apart, if you want a dog to do something they, like us, are more likely to do it if taught, allowed to learn, told to do it in a courteous manner and will repeat the task if our effort is appreciated and rewarded. Shouting at and hurting a dog will do nothing to encourage learning the behaviour or repeating it.

Punishment is designed to deter. So why, if one wants a dog to hold a dummy would one inflict a punishment and associate pain with the very thing we want the dog to do? Beats me, and no-one can ever explain to me why they do this!

When the dog will willingly hold a toy on command and continue to hold it for longer, but variable, periods of time then you should add a few different circumstances to the dogs' understanding. Firstly by doing a sit/hold and walking round the dog before standing in front of the dog and taking the toy, then by walking further away from the dog, returning to take the toy and then by returning but not taking the toy but walking away again. Try to be unpredictable in terms of when you will take the toy but totally consistent in terms of what the dog must do. Don't use any words other than 'sit' 'hold', 'dead' and praise words.

The above should be practiced over several days then it will be time to generalise the behaviour - 'take it on the road'! What this means, is that the practiced and perfected behaviour should then be taken to a different place from the place one taught and perfected the desired behaviour. That does not mean make the new circumstances, to which you'll take the behaviour, so different and/or exciting that the new behaviour will be demolished! You need to protect the new behaviour like carrying a dozen eggs or a bottle of wine home in the car!

So practice the sit and hold in the garden, in different places in the house, anywhere and everywhere you can think of without throwing anything and without too many distractions. Distractions should be built into the circumstances gradually and progressively until you get to the stage whereby wherever you and the dog are, you can give the dog a toy to hold and no matter what, the dog will continue to hold the item until you too hold it and give the 'dead' release command.

At this stage you can legitimately give yourself a pat on the back and say 'well done'! Don't go OTT praising yourself however as the job isn't finished yet!