The Silent Session

We’ve all tried to train our dogs. We reward them with “good girl!” and “good boy!,” a click (if you’ve done clicker training), or maybe even a play session for a job well done. Have you ever dropped all the sound clues and thought about connecting with your dog via body language? Well, a silent training session will do just that.

Action really can speak louder than words, especially when the listener is your dog.

For dogs, the majority of their communication is through body language. As long as you can convey what you mean without speaking, they’ll have no trouble at all keeping up. The hard part is getting convinced you can do it.

During a recent canine good citizen class with my youngest dog, the instructor decided we should try out a “silent session” and see what happened. I was nervous–my three-year-old dog is commonly mistaken as a puppy–she whines, she gets overexcited easily, and she is constantly vibrating with excess energy. I was sure I couldn’t get her to respond. Armed with a handful of hot dog treats, off we went. Once she realized the only way she’d get the treat was to follow my commands, which I wasn’t about to speak aloud to help her, she was in the zone. She didn’t look away from my eyes once. She executed her sits, downs, stays, and comes flawlessly–as if she always “listened” that well. I, on the other hand, was utterly shocked. She had never followed instruction that well–she knows her sits and downs, but the second a better offer comes along (like a bird flying overhead), all her concentration was lost. Not so this time. And to add to the challenge, our first silent session was in the unfamiliar backyard of a veterinary office, surrounded by other dogs and their handlers.

So, really, if we can do it, you can do it. I promise.

Try running through the command your dog knows without saying a single word. If your dog is treat motivated, stick with using treats. If he’s play motivated, continue to reward with playtime–the silent session doesn’t mean no rewards! You’ll likely be pleasantly surprised to see that your dog knows exactly what you’re “talking about.”

If he’s having trouble with it, back up a few steps and start to teach a “look” command–this will reinforce that looking at you is always good. Draw a treat from your dog’s nose to your eye. The second your dog looks at your eye, say “look” and reward! Continue practicing a few minutes at a time. Eventually make the game more challenging by holding a treat out to the side, behind your back, with no food reward at all–but continue to reward for a job well done! Eventually, your dog will glance at you without prompting, if you catch it, say “look” and reward again!

Once you’re back to a silent session, use your body language to communicate. Hand signals that you once used with verbal cues are still fair game, go ahead a gesture for something simple like sit. Continue to run through commands your dog knows. He’ll be watching you by now, completely focused since it’s only up to him to pay attention–he can’t rely on your voice to reel him back in from a distraction.

Watch your body language–are your feet together, do you lean toward your dog, tilt your head, or smile while working with your dog? Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t. Does your dog focus more on your when you “feel” like you know what you’re doing? We all know what this feels like–standing up tall, shoulders squared, and you feel in control of the situation. What you’re feeling while subconsciously display in your body Dogs are old pros at reading each other’s–and human’s–body language. Stay aware of how you’re using it.  

By Rachel Leisemann Immel