DEAR OLD TRAINER: My mother saw you in person and told me you gave orders to your dogs in dog language. She is 84 so she may have misunderstood, but she swears you would bark and your dogs would do whatever command you gave them in dog talk. She loved it and was fascinated. Do you really do that?
Barbara, Denton, Texas
A: Yes, I may be the only dog language speaker in the country. I started doing it to entertain kids and kept it in the show because it’s such a vivid reminder of the mindset you need when training your dog.
As soon as kids hear it they start laughing and applauding. They already know dogs are magic so it’s easy for them to believe my dogs understand my barks and growls. It’s all for fun, but it teaches a valuable lesson — the more you think like your dog the faster he learns and the closer you become.
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Even adults are startled when they see it and though they may suspect a trick, no one has yet figured out how I do it. Like most magic, it’s a combination of a little practice with some misdirection thrown in.
I reveal it here for the first time.
I start with a command I teach all my dogs. I pat a bench or bannister or tree, anything the right height for a dog to place their front paws and say, “Paws Up.” Most learn it fast because all dogs like to get up to their human’s level, but I’m in no hurry.
If they don’t get it in a few days I lift their paws up on the tree and then pet them and love on them while I repeat the command.
While they are learning I add a hand signal as I say “paws up.” I have a hand signal for every command and for this one it’s a little flick of my hand — same as a Blackjack player calling for another card — toward the tree.
The trick is useful in many ways. You can put on a leash or collar, love on them, whatever you need to do, all without bending over.
Once they learn, they know to put their paws wherever I point when I give the hand signal and make a sound. Dogs are canines, not humans, so they don’t care what vocal sound I make. It never takes them more than a few minutes to realize I have substituted dog talk for a human word and that’s fine with them.
I only use dog talk for that one trick. I could train a dog to respond to nothing but barks and growls, but the point is to remind people to think like a canine when training their dog. Almost every training problem is a result of projecting human psychology onto a canine, believing their dog thinks like a human. The more you think like a canine the better dog trainer you become.
I actually try to speak real dog talk — I’m sure my dogs get a big laugh out of that one — while I growl and bark, but it’s the combination of hand signal and vocal noise that tells the dogs to run over and put their paws where I point.
They do the command so fast sometimes I wonder if I AM talking dog talk.
A trainer for more than 30 years, Jack Haskins has rescued, trained and placed more than 2,500 dogs. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.