K-9 Communication by Al Magaw

K-9 Communication

by Al Magaw

I think every dog owner has experienced incidents when their dog seems to know, without being told, when the owner is going to be doing something that the pet will be involved in. Much of this recognition can be put down to clues like a break in routine, body language, verbalization, etc.  There are times, though, when none of the above apply. Times like a Saturday morning when the owner gets up at the same hour as normal, puts on the same clothes as normal, goes through the same routine as they do the rest of the week, yet the dog is filled with excitement because they “know” they are going too. There has been no verbalization, no change in routine, yet the dog knows. How is this possible?  I’ve always wondered about this phenomena. I didn’t pursue this line of thought though, even when I was demonstrating how my dog would do tricks as I silently read a list of tricks scribbled on a scrap of paper. I did my best to not move my body, nor give any clue, even avoiding eye contact, but “Cylus” would reliably roll over, sit up, speak, etc., as I read what ever trick was written on the list. It made a great parlour trick to show off to friends and family, but it wasn’t until I got my little border collie, “Quick” that it dawned on me that this phenomenon of silent communication went much further than a parlour trick.

Many mushers have experienced having leaders that would go down the wrong trail, perhaps a dangerous one, no matter what command was being given. The common advice given is to keep your thoughts on the trail you want to be on, rather than the one you don’t. I’ve heard mushers claim that all they have to do is to picture in their mind what trail they want to travel without giving a command, and that’s where their “in tune” leader will go. Many obedience trainers will advise “picturing” the behavior you want from your dog, rather than fearing the behavior you don’t want.

To get back to “Quick”. Quick was a rescue from the pound. I’ve always admired the intelligence of the border collie, the dedication to the job they have, their alertness and awareness of what’s going on, but I had no expectations of what was going to happen with Quick. Quick assumed the job as caretaker of the kennel, a self imposed job that she has dutifully fulfilled for the past 13-years. She treats the kennel dogs as her charges, much as a dog like her would be expected to treat a herd of sheep. Not only does Quick do her best to keep order in the kennel, and does her best to help bring dogs from the kennel to the hook-up area,  she has brought loose dogs back to the truck when we were traveling. Quick never leaves the kennel to follow a team when we’re training at home.  When we return from a run, she goes up the side of the team with me as I give each dog a pet and a “good dog” for a job well done. Quick will nuzzle an ear as I give each dog a pet, as if she too was saying “good dog”. That is until we come to a dog that screwed up on the run. To me, once we are home, every dog is a “good dog” and they all get their pet, yet Quick will start to scold and nag that dog with a series of sharp yips and barks. How she knows what a dog did on the trail, I could only surmise. It took a friend of mine to point out the most remarkable thing about Quick and the sled dogs though. Occasionally, Quick will scold a dog on it’s way from the kennel to the hook-up area, and sure enough THAT dog will screw up during the run! That’s when I realized that dogs have a way of communicating well beyond mere words. Not only are they able to silently communicate complex things, they have an awareness of the future, and can make plans and follow through with those plans.

Some humans have admirable intuitions about people or events. Watching my dogs for all these years has made me wonder if what is commonly called “intuition” is a vestige of what animals do all the time, much as our tail bone is a vestige of a tail.

We would love to hear your comments regarding this article. Please let us know at live@dogdoctorradio.com

Tags: Al Magaw | Robert Forto | Michele Forto | Iditarod | Team Ineka | Dog Training Denver | Dog Doctor Radio | Denver Dog Works | Mushing Radio | Duluth Dog Works | Minnesota Dog Works


Al Magaw is a musher from Salmo BC. Al keeps a medium sized kennel of 20 – 45 alaskan huskies as well as several pet dogs of various breeds. Al has been training and racing for the last 33 years. Before becoming involved with sled dogs, Al, along with his family, kept and competed with horses for many years. Al can be reached through his website at http://www.spiritofthenorthkennels.com Al is a guest blogger for Denver Dog Works and can be reached through our website at http://www.denverdogworks.com


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