Being able to “read” a dog is the most important aspect of training. It’s just one of the intangible marks of a great trainer. It’s also one of the hardest things to do correctly.
By “read,” I mean: being able to recognize a dog’s body language and interpret his state of mind. When you can do this, your ability to effectively train greatly increases; you can adjust training plans on the fly to better fit the dog’s psychological and physical limitations.
The best way to learn to read a dog is get your hands on as many as possible and to pay attention. It’s through hands-on experience with many different dogs in a variety of similar situations that you’ll notice nuances in behavior and body language. There’s really no shortcut to learning this other than doing it. However, there are a several things that can help speed the learning curve.
Train with a Pro: A good professional trainer can speed your learning curve dramatically by pointing out a flick of an ear, tail height and motion, panting, eye contact, acceptance signals or any number of other things that range from confusion to obstinacy.
Not only can a pro point out the changes in body language, they can put them into context; a raised tail can mean two completely different things depending upon what is happening to and around the dog at the time.
Read a Book: There are numerous books out there on canine psychology. One of the best that I’ve found is “The Dog’s Mind” by Bruce Fogle. It was recommended to me several years ago by pro trainer Ronnie Smith, a man that can read dogs as well as anyone out there. It’s not so much about reading body language as it is about how a dog thinks and develops from prenatal to old age.
One of my favorite books is “Dog Language: An Encyclopedia of Canine Behavior” by Roger Abrantes. It’s not your traditional “book” but rather an encyclopedia that you use to look up different behaviors, such as yawning, mounting, ears, etc. It tells you what it can mean in various contexts and why a dog might display that specific body language.
Watch a Video: If you can’t observe or train with lots of different dogs, DVDs can be an effective alternative for learning about body language. They hold an advantage over books in that you can watch real dogs in real circumstances displaying various signals.
A great DVD set is “The Language of Dogs: Understanding Canine Body Language and Other Communication Signals” by Sarah Kalnajs. It features extensive video compiled from hundreds of hours of Kalnajs’ study of dogs. She explains the signals and puts them into context. It’s an excellent 2-hour and 13-minute, 2-disk DVD set that won the IIACAB Award for 2006 Best Dog Behavior DVD.
Observe Dogs: Like I said, there’s no substitute for hands-on learning and observation. Once you begin to understand canine body language, look around and watch every dog you encounter. You’ll begin to notice subtle signals that tell the world how an owner and his dog relate to one another (you’ll be amazed at the number of dogs who are in charge…).
Put your new-found observation skills to work wherever dogs and people congregate. Dog parks are great places to watch canines interact, as well as people (especially if you want to witness some dysfunctional behavior from both species!). Training sessions with other gun dog enthusiasts are another place to observe various dogs. Watch how your buddies’ dogs relate to them and other dogs and then how they work in the field. There’s often a correlation.