How We Can Confuse Our Dogs

WHOLE DOG JOURNAL WEEKLY

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So often in training, when a dog doesn’t perform the desired behavior in response to the given cue, we blame the dog. I often hear, “He’s blowing me off!” or “She’s being stubborn!” In reality, the handler just didn’t make it clear enough for the dog to fully understand what the person was trying to teach. Here are ways we confuse our dogs:

DON’T EXPECT YOUR DOG TO AUTOMATICALLY KNOW OUR LANGUAGE. Dogs don’t come with an English software package installed. We must patiently teach them our language, one cue at a time.

NOT TAKING THE TIME TO DEFINE THE CUE’S GOAL BEHAVOIR. Have in mind the specific definition of what you expect. I suggest you create a cue dictionary. Write down every cue you currently use, then define the goal behavior for each cue. Do you want a straight sit with square hips or a sidesaddle sit? A speedy down or a slow down? Defining your cues and the goal behavior for each in writing will help you be clear in your own mind about what you expect, and that will make it more clear for your dog.

AVOID ADDING CUES TOO EARLY. It’s important to teach your dog the behavior and make sure she can perform it reliably before adding the cue.

DON’T USE TWO CUES SIMULTANEOUSLY. For example, a verbal cue and a body cue (hand signal): Dogs are keen observers. They pick up on our body language before they pick up on our words. If you use a verbal cue, but also a body movement with it (such as the word “sit” and then the hand signal for “sit”), I’d bet that if you said the word and didn’t use the body movement, the dog probably wouldn’t understand what you meant and might not give you the behavior you expect.

POOR REINFORCEMENT. Don’t fail to reinforce the newly learned behavior enough for it to become fluent. Some dogs catch on very quickly; others more slowly, but they all can learn if we’re patient and reinforce the desired behavior appropriately.

DON’T CHOOSE CUES THAT LOOKS SIMILAR OR SOUND SIMILAR. Choosing the verbal cues such as Down and Bow for two different behaviors can be confusing for your dog. Instead of Bow, I suggest Bravo or TaDa!

There are other reasons a dog doesn’t respond to a cue: the dog didn’t see or hear the cue; the dog didn’t recognize the cue because it’s too similar to another cue; the dog was distracted by the environment (another dog, person, squirrel); the dog felt unsafe.

So, repeat after me: “Don’t blame the dog.” Take a look at your training techniques and find a way to tweak the process so you can help your dog be successful. When your dog is successful, she earns reinforcement and that behavior you worked diligently to install and put on cue works perfectly. The result is clear communication with your favorite furry friend. Happy dog. Happy trainer!

For more information on cues for your dog, download Whole Dog Journal’s ebook The Recall.

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