by Chelsey McMahon, AKC Trained Dog Trainer
Energy: it’s the baseline of canine communication! The body language (dog talk) of a canine stems from its energy, and the energy within a dog can come from absorbing the energy around him. In addition to verbalizations in the form of barks and whines, dogs communicate with body language, some of which is overt and some that is very minute – a brief moment of eye contact from across the room can speak volumes between dogs. The ability for dogs to quickly and efficiently give and receive communication by means of minor changes in their body and posture is because of energy!
In the animal world, energy spikes, and it drops just like an electrical current and it can do so as quickly as the flip of a switch. This is why it’s so important, as a canine handler, to keep a leveled and steady energy at all times. A neutral handler gives the dog a baseline from which to work which, in turn, helps them steady or neutralize their own energy. If a handler is constantly correcting and frustrated when handling the dogs in his care, then the dogs for which he cares are going to begin mirroring that negative energy back to him. This, in turn, can manifest in inappropriate or maladaptive behaviors within the dog (the opposite of what we want when training a dog). Conversely, if a handler structures their behavioral modification techniques around the principles of positive reinforcement, and minimizes their corrections or admonishments, the energy that is reciprocated from the dog will be both lighter and looser. He or she will be more primed to learn and more eager to please.
Of course, there will be times when a dog’s energy becomes heightened through no fault of our own. During these times of excitement, it is imperative that a dog’s handlers channel their inner calm. If the handler increases energy after the canine does, this can raise the energy level even further. Additionally, some dogs will innately see this frustration as a challenge and one they will attempt to capitalize on. It’s important to remember that dogs are empathetic and sentient animals – pioneering research on their cognition has confirmed that they are able to sense, feel, and read human emotion, probably better than any other animal on the planet. And what are emotions if not a psychological manifestation of energy?
So, now we understand how dogs interpret and react to energy. The next step is structuring the humans’ behavior in order to project the correct energy needed to work successfully with a dog, or many dogs. When working with dogs it’s important to remember The Three C’s: calmness, confidence, and commandeering. It’s okay to be assertive but a handler should always avoid being aggressive. In times of heightened stress, sometimes the best course of action is to stop, take a deep breath (or five), and re-address the situation with a different approach and a lower energy level.
When working with dogs, moving slowly and predictably is advised. Please note, that I am not advocating for monotone stick figures to become dog handlers; however, the slower you move, and the lower you keep your voice (no baby talk) the better. Fast movement, and hyperactivity will stir up the energy level for a dog and should be avoided. Additionally, if a handler is anxious or nervous, a dog will be able to sense that. A dog that senses anxiety or nervousness in a handler will be less likely to trust that handler and more likely to absorb, and reflect that same nervousness. An anxious dog is a reactive dog and reactivity is what we want to negate!
Because energy is experienced through body language, a handler’s body language is critically important when working with dogs. It’s not just what we say but how we say it and how our body stands and moves as we interact with the dogs in our care as well as each other is important. In order to project an image of confidence, handlers should stand up straight with their chest and head held high (no slouching), feet should remain shoulder width apart, and commands should be given with a clear, strong voice. When a dog behaves as directed, give lots of effusive praise (pets, positive tone of voice, “good dog!” etc). The more often we can praise a dog for doing the right thing, the more likely they are to want to continue with that behavior. And as the positive communicational bond between handler and dog grows, trust and respect will naturally follow.
So, now we know how a handler’s energy can affect the dog for whom he cares, and we’ve learned some good tips for neutralizing our energy and mitigating energy spikes. Next week, I’ll be spending some additional time on how energy can be transmitted to a dog through a leash. Until then, if you have any further questions about energy, or how I may help your dog’s energy, or your energy when you interact with your dog, please email me here: firstname.lastname@example.org.