Learning to Speak Dog Part 5: Communication and Training

Posted on Sep 18, 2012
Learning to Speak Dog Part 5: Communication and Training

from the Photo Lab
with a special guest post by Nicole Begley

Read others in this series: Introduction  |  Part 1  |  Part 2  |  Part 3  |  Part 4  |  Part 5

To Speak Dog, Listen for Dog Speak
A dog communicates by using his body as well as his voice. Barks, growls, whines, and other such noises are an audible clue to understanding a dog’s mood. I find it funny however that a lot of people find doggy noises annoying and spend a lot of time trying to get them to stop barking or worse, punish them for growling. If a dog cannot use sound, his communication is greatly handicapped. Especially in the case of a fearful or aggressive dog, believe me, you WANT them to growl, that’s a warning; versus reacting in a physical way without warning altogether.
Below I list some more recognizable sounds or “Dog Talk” and their possible translation as found in the book Dog Tips from Dogtown: A Relationship Manual for You and Your Dog

What’s in a Bark?
One of my favorite animal behaviorists (also an author, trainer and veterinarian), Sophia Yin spent some time researching barking and its role in vocal communication. I highly recommend reading her article Barking as Vocal Communication in Dogs, it comes complete with sound clips and the possible meanings behind them. Truly a fantastic and informative read.

Alert barking: Dogs “alert bark” when aroused or possibly see something unusual such as a stranger at the door or in the case of my mom and dad’s dog, a scorpion or other nasty bug inside the house. An alert bark is often easy to pick out since it sounds like an alarm woof: “woowoowoowoowoooooo!”

Attention barking: When a dog wants something, she may ask for it by barking. “Hey! feed me!” or “Hey! play with me!” or “Hey! I need to go potty!” are all good examples and the last one especially is greatly appreciated 🙂

Boredom/Demand barking: A dog, especially an active one, needs daily physical and mental stimulation. Without it, they become bored and restless and may bark to try and get your attention (or your butt off the couch or away from the computer, bless them). If out of control, demand barking can be very off-putting, but the best way to combat it is by enriching the dog’s day with toys, exercise, games or chewies.

Fear barking: Yes, dogs do bark when frightened, possibly to make said scary thing go away if it’s within sight. “Hey! You! Stay back!”

Playful barking: When happy, or having a good time, it is not uncommon for dogs to bark in a higher pitch bark and accompanied by a loose, wiggly body.


What’s in a Growl?
Growls can mean a myriad of things and similar to barks, different growls can be attributed to different things. Usually associated with stress, fear or aggression; growling can also be a part of play. To help you differentiate one growl to another, keep in mind the circumstance; for example, if your dog growls during a good game of tug: play. If your dog growls as you approach her food bowl: a warning to keep your distance.
Warning growls usually mean the dogs is anxious or stressed over something such as an invasion of space or a threat to his possessions. A growl accompanied by bared teeth and a stiff body is a clear message that the dog is uncomfortable and possibly preparing to bite.
Playful growls to me sound more like a buzz or a hum and can range in pitch and tone. Once you hear a play growl and a warning or angry growl, the difference is very clear.


What’s in a Whine?
Whining is the slightly more complicated one to figure out. Dogs whine for a variety of reasons, not just pain or fear. They can whine for attention, out of anxiety or excitement. Watching the entire body, taking into account the situation as a whole could help narrow down the reason for the whining. What makes the whining start/stop? What is happening around the dog when the whining occurs?

This article on canine vocal communication by The Whole Dog Journal is a great read and if you want to hear audio clips to try and interpret, check out Vocaldog.com. Don’t miss any of the dog-related programs on NOVA and PBS Nature, they are simply fabulous, in particular Dogs Decoded.

Now I leave you in the hands of our special guest blogger, Nicole Begley, with some wonderful tips for pet photographers, but really, for anyone who loves dogs.
Dog Training Tips for Pet Photographers
by Nicole Begley

“Kindness is Powerful” Dog is Good for Victoria Stilwell’s Positively. I LOVE this t-shirt and the message it inspires. Get it today from dogisgood.com

Every interaction with an animal is training. While you may not be in “training mode” when interacting with your dog while you are at the kitchen table working, your dog is constantly gathering information from his environment on what is acceptable and what is not. Animals, including humans, are always asking “what’s in it for me?” and just about every behavior can be broken down to seeking pleasure or avoiding fear or pain.

The basis for traditional dog training techniques is rooted in avoidance. The dog stays near you to avoid a yank on the choke collar. The dog sits to avoid being physically pushed down. The dog stops barking at another dog because it is kicked. It has been scientifically proven that training any animal with punishment and negative reinforcement  leads to: fearful behavior, aggression, reduction in behavior, and avoidance. Please don’t think that just physical punishment will lead to these detrimental side effects, all aversive stimulus will.

Just think about the worst boss you ever had. You know the one: publicly calling out mistakes in group meetings, always telling you what is wrong with your work, not giving you the information needed to do the job correctly, never listening to your opinion about something that affects your job. Now didn’t you: A. Dread going to work in the morning.  B. Get snippy and cranky and probably gossip about said boss with any co-worker that would listen.  C. Work only hard enough not to get yelled at, you certainly weren’t going to come up with new and exciting projects for the company.  D. Quickly duck into the restroom when the boss was walking your way.  There you go….the four detrimental side affects of negative training methods.

Now just think how much more you would enjoy the SAME duties if your boss gave you information that was needed, regularly made a habit of calling positive attention to someone’s performance, actively asked opinions of employees, giving you mentoring and suggestions to help you improve your work in private in the form of mentoring. I know I personally have worked for both of those types of bosses and I will drop everything for the second boss in order to help them achieve a company goal. I was also constantly thinking of new ideas that could improve the company. In addition, since I felt my opinion mattered, even when they made a decision that I didn’t agree with I respected that decision, since I respected the person.

Animal training is no different. Since dogs are so incredibly domesticated and wanting to please us they will continue to work even in a negative training situation. Imagine though how those negative training methods would work on an eagle that you are flying free outside. How would those methods work when you are training a gorilla to come over to the fence, stick their arm into a sleeve and hold perfectly still for a blood draw. They wouldn’t. Just because dogs put up with traditional training techniques doesn’t mean they are right.

Traditional techniques can cause a dangerous situation with little notice. Remember that aggression is a side effect and can happen in an instant. It is just about impossible to create a dangerous situation using positive reinforcement. If there is an animal that is food aggressive then find something else reinforcing, such as their favorite ball. Food is not the only tool that you have when using positive reinforcement training! Anything the animal finds reinforcing will work to your advantage, often it’s food, but can also be toys, belly rubs, or even their favorite person or other dog.

Our clients are entrusting us with the care of their dog during our session. It is imperative that we treat the dog respectfully and in the most positive manner possible. Please learn what the body language of any animal species that you are working with is saying (did you miss our previous post on Reading a Dog’s Body? Click HERE to read it now). Know that if the dog has ears back and their tail tucked between their legs they are not comfortable.

©Nicole Begley Photography. All rights reserved.

It is not worth putting the animal in a stressful situation just to get the shot that is in your head. Besides, their body language will come through in the final image. Now just because a dog is showing some signs of nervousness in a certain situation doesn’t mean that you need to abandon ship. This is where a little positive reinforcement training comes in!

Simply break the behavior down into very small steps. If your dog is nervous of a park bench and you would like them up on it find out where the threshold is that they start to get nervous based on their body language, then move back slightly. Empower the dog to make their own decisions. See if they will come closer for a reward. If they move closer on their own reinforce it!  Allow them to sniff the scary object, and then reward them!  Show them a piece of food in a manner requires them to put their front feet on the bench, and then reinforce with that piece of food. Eventually you may be able to convince them the bench isn’t so scary and they will hop up on it. To see an example of this technique at work in getting a dog comfortable with a camera, click HERE.

Really it’s that simple.

One test that I do before any session is test the dog’s response to the sound of my shutter. I always make sure to do this in a way that is less likely to freak them out. Imagine if you just put your camera 12 inches from their nose and snap the shutter, even if there were only slightly nervous of the camera now they are probably completely freaked out and it will be very challenging to bring them back around before their attention is gone and you still have daylight for your session!

I recommend being about ten feet away from the dog and having the camera down at your side.  Then just click the shutter once to see their response. Do they snap their head up and look around for the source of the new noise or are they not affected? I continue to move closer until I see where it is that my shutter sound is causing any sort of curious behavior and I reinforce them for reacting calmly. If they elicited a response that I don’t want to reinforce then I simply back up a few steps and find a threshold in which I can reinforce calm behavior.

©Nicole Begley Photography. All rights reserved.

  1. Get out the big guns, like hot dogs or cheese. Whatever their favorite treat is; use it.
  2. Feed them treats as the camera gets a little bit closer, no noise from the camera, just the camera itself. Let them sniff it. I’ve actually let a dog take a treat from the side of my camera to help them become more comfortable with it.
  3. Once they are comfortable with the presence of the camera back way up and do the same thing with periodic shutter snapping. If they regress and then just back up a bit and try again.
  4. Usually you can work through this whole process in about 10 minutes and then you can start your session.
  5. On occasion you will have a dog that is petrified of the camera or the shutter sound and no amount of counter conditioning will change that behavior in the short time that you have. In those situations your best bet is to grab that long lens and sit on the sidelines. Throwing a treat to the dog periodically wouldn’t hurt either!

I remember one of the first dogs that I photographed was an Airdale Terrier that was terrified of the camera. This dog breed was created to hunt otters, and if you have worked with otters you know that they are mean little ankle biters. Cute yes, evil absolutely. They must have a same PR person as penguins, they look so cute and cuddly but then they will grab that sensitive skin just behind your knee and bite it like no other. Sorry, I digress.  Anyway, this dog would get in front of the leaf blower when it was on but was scared of my little camera. Having a long zoom lens in my bag saved me that day as my 50 mm would have never cut it.


Thanks for reading this far into my post.  I hope that some of this information is helpful to you and remember, if you ever meet nose to nose with an otter or penguin, run.


Nicole Begley spent 13 years in her first career as a zoological animal trainer, working with every species from aardvarks to free-flight birds, and seals to primates.  She now owns a pet photography studio based in Pittsburgh, PA (www.nicolebegleyphotography.com) and also created Hair of the Dog, a blog dedicated to business and marketing tips for veteran and aspiring pet photographers. (http://wwwhairofthedogblog.com)  Connect with Nicole on the Hair of the Dog Facebook page! (http://www.facebook.com/hairofthedogblog)


1 Comment

  1. Stephanie @ And Foster Makes Five
    September 18, 2012

    What a great article! Part of the solution in ending the unwanted pet epidemic across our country lies in teaching owners that their own actions may be causing the behaviors they dislike in their pets. Teaching proper training techniques is step one. Thanks for sharing some unique and thought-provoking tips!