Friday, November 4, 2011

Command Clarity

When you think tools, the things we use to direct our dogs into desired behaviors, don’t just think material leashes and collars. Tools are also commands; verbal and non-verbal cues your dog has learned to understand and will heed to.
In my career, I never met a dumb or stubborn dog. I am not kidding. I met many that are too anxious or wound up to learn‘n’listen, or fearfully avoid humans cause they experienced that they’re not always trustworthy. And I met many that seek a connection, want to pay attention, but are confused because their person isn’t making any sense. In other words, training failure happens not because the dog is a few marbles short, but because the human is unpredictable, inconsistent or imprecise, and the dog tunes him out.
Dogs are marvelous creatures. They share many of our emotions, and some of our cognizance. That part allows them to comprehend how human-specific communication signals, our words and gestures, correlate with actions and consequences. But their thinking brain isn’t as developed as ours, and that means that we have to be really clear when we teach. If we’re not, the dog quickly becomes confused and loses interest, and then gets the stupid or willful label.
First, you need to have clarity in your own mind what it is you actually want your dog to learn. My advice is to grab paper and pencil, sit yourselves down with a glass of wine – juice for the kids, and jog down what behaviors are important for you, and what corresponding cue you want to use. One word for one behavior. That is very important. What I often see is an owner who uses the same word for different actions, and expects the dog to sort out what he’s after at the moment and obey accurately. A common example is “come”, used for: return to me from a distance, but also follow me on a leash or let’s move together in one direction. Another one is “off”, used for: stop counter-surfing, stop jumping, and periodically also drop what’s in your mouth.
If you’re ambitious and want to teach many behaviors, come up with many words. Magnet your list on the refrigerator door, so that each family member can easily refer to it and training can be consistent.
If you train using a verbal/hand signal combination, don’t forget to use the hand signal or your dog might be confused. Only the brainiest pooches will respond correctly if you use either/or. All others can learn to, but you need to teach it.
Be equally clear what behavior you are after at the moment, cause that is the one you need to reinforce. That is especially important for the rookie learner and when you teach something new. For example: when you work on a position stay, reward the pooch when she is still in that position, and then release. So, if you think “duration down stay on a mat” and your dog complies, don’t call her to you and reward, because then you reinforce coming, not the duration down stay on a mat. Once your dog has mastered a word with the corresponding action, not before, you can chain several together and reward in the end. Another one is attention around distractions. If it’s attention you want, reinforce attention, regardless if your dog sits, stands or lies down. Once attention is solid, you can add whatever position you like her to be in to the mix.
Can you teach several commands concurrently? Or should one be reliable before you hop to the next? It depends on the dog. Bright and easily bored ones can benefit from being challenged with a variety, while slower learners might find it easier to proceed to a new command only after they grasped the previous one. In any case, even gifted pooches must revise old stuff periodically, but once a command/behavior combination is cemented into their memory, it can be surprisingly long lasting. Davie performed all her Rally O’ stuff after a year and more of not revising. She also remembered where the neighbor’s cat used to roam, and long after they moved still checked the spot.

When you teach, sandwich difficult tasks between easier ones, and always end on a high note. Your dog will remember that training and obeying is fun, and not a drag. And give the pooch a break. Recent studies suggest that dogs retain better if they have a resting period after the session. Like people, sleeping on in might be a good idea.
Another aspect folks are often unclear about is if it is okay to repeat a command. Unlike many of my colleagues, I find repeating acceptable, even advantageous, under certain circumstances. Ideally, a command should only be given when you have your dog’s attention, when she’s tuned in. Realistically, that doesn’t always happen, so in my world it is okay to remind the pooch what we just said, and for that matter, that we really mean it. Yes, it is allowed to crank up the firmness of your voice, but not volume. A herding dog client quizzed me on that not too long ago. He was concerned about repeating and his stern tone when he does, but felt he needed to with his young, still somewhat unripe Border collie who is sometimes slow to "down" because she wants to continue to work her sheep or turkeys. Of course, a herding dog who fails to drop on a dime moves even closer to the animals and might spook and scatter them, so it's important.
On that note, it is also okay to encourage the dog when she’s on the right track but a little nervous, uncertain and hesitant, but use your pleasant voice then, not the firm one. Let’s not forget that Chaser, the Border collie who comprehends 1022 words, needed about 40 repetitions in a row before she connected the dots.
Repeating is okay, machine-gun like orders without giving the dog time and opportunity to obey, is not. Imagine your partner asking you to do something, and releasing verbal diarrhea right after: “do it – do it – doit - doitdoitdoit…”. Annoying? You’d tune that person out real fast, right? Yeah! Back to the dog labeled dumb and stubborn. I have a 20 second rule, which means after that I’ll help my dog succeed.

When you give a command you know your dog knows - and make sure you know, don’t just assume that she understands that signal in the context you are using it - ensure that you are able to enforce it. If you can’t enforce it, don’t give it. And the person who gave the command is the one who does the enforcing. Even if you have better rapport with your dog than your teenager, hold back and don’t interfere.
Dr. Jesus Rosales-Ruiz, who is an Associate Professor in the Department of Behavior Analysis at the University of North Texas, coined the term Spoiled Cues, which means that if you say a word but won’t get the behavior, or the dog is reinforced for a different behavior than the one you aim for, the word becomes useless as an information and guidance tool.
For example: you might say heel while the dog pulls you to the fire hydrant. From the dog’s point of view, your heel-word becomes the cue to pull. Or you yell come while she runs in the opposite direction. If that happens often enough, come will be her cue to run away, and you become more and more frustrated and impatient, and your dog senses that and wonders what’s gotten into you, and is even less likely to want to be near you. In her mind, she does exactly what she learned to do when she hears you utter one word, or the other.
Spoiling also happens if the command brings about a negative emotion. If sit on walks is only requested in the context of a worrisome trigger (dog/man/child) approaching, then on walks “sit” becomes the dog’s cue that potential trouble is ahead. The word is spoiled, because it raises suspicion and anxiety. The dog might obey when you can enforce it, but reluctantly, and when she has the chance might refuse because it feels bad.

Training is educating the dog how our words and gestures are relevant to her life. If the pupil doesn’t learn, it is the teacher who has to figure out where the problems are and adjust accordingly. Using force makes as much sense as beating knowledge into a child. Some dogs might need more repetitions than others, or progress more slowly, but with patience every one has the potential and hardware to get it. The beauty is that when that happens, you can manipulate your dog’s behavior from the distance. The mental and emotional bond is what is keeping you connected, and material tools like leash and collar are only there because the law stipulates it.


  1. Here I am reading your Blog from afar. Most excellent. Now to get everyone to sit down and have that happy pop and put it in paper. Then have all those involved to be on the same page. Then post it so no one goes astray. Just think of the many years of joy and happinest and all those fond memories.

  2. I talked a bit about dogs not being stubborn too in my last post - I find repeating cues an interesting idea - I'm still conflicted but I do like Ian Dunbars procedure for teaching commands at a distance which involves repeating cues