Let’s Talk About Cues -By Fran Berry, ABC Certified Dog Trainer
Friday, April 01, 2011 : 9:49:38 AM Updated Thursday, August 18, 2011 : 11:14:44 AM
A while back a pet-parent approached me after class to ask when his puppy would be old enough to understand words. I thought it was so cute that he likened his puppy to that of a toddler who wasn’t talking yet!
However, the notion of dogs understanding our ‘talk’ got me to thinking about the way we use our language with dogs and why it can be a bit dangerous for some of our pups.
Dogs have been studying humans thousands of years longer than humans have been studying dogs. Dogs are experts at noticing every muscle movement we make, every blink of our eyes; the slightest tilt in our posture and of course the tone in our voice. Dogs communicate in a language of postures and are quite adept at reading us. Humans, on the other hand, rely on verbal skills and as such talk to our dogs the way we’d talk to a foreign visitor: we say the word louder and repeat it often!
In Positive Reinforcement training, one method is to avoid talking to our dogs because we want our dogs to learn clearly and without all the ‘noise clutter’, and of course we don’t want to hurt them! So for example we can have the dog follow a food lure into a SIT position and reward him; after a few trials, we use an empty hand for the dog to follow and reward him. The dog thus learns that sitting brings him rewards and the hand-signal is the tip off that it is time to do the behavior. Now it’s time to teach the dog the word, sit by pairing the verbal with the hand-signal or we pair the verbal by capturing the actual movement as the dog folds into position. But keep in mind the many mini-steps it took to teach the dog to position himself into a sit, and then ask yourself which one of those mini-steps actually meant SIT from the dog’s point of view?
Here’s my favorite example: Suppose you had a foreign exchange student living with you for a few months because she wanted to learn English. And let’s say that you had enrolled into a pottery class and thought this would be a fun way to teach the student our language while learning a skill. The first step would be to decide what you wanted to create (in this case a clay bowl) and then grab a hunk of clay and put it on the potter’s wheel. Would you point to the clay and teach the student the word “bowl”? Unfortunately that is how we teach our dogs. The student needs to associate the word, bowl, to the finished product, not all the steps it took to make the bowl! Our dogs too, need to associate the word to the finished product.
The problems arise when our very astute dogs respond to our physical cues. So we tell our dogs to SIT, and unknowingly tilt or gesture toward them and sometimes the dog sits. The human makes a huge leap and assumes the dog knows what the word means. The next trial produces something like this: SIT, SIT, SIT! And maybe by the 3rd SIT (which is actually getting louder and more ‘threatening’ from a visual perspective) the dog sits. The owner, when asked whether his dog knows the word SIT, typically says that his dog knows, but is stubborn, or defiant, or is stupid. Rarely, do we hear that the dog wasn’t trained properly!
If you think about it, the cue to SIT, is an opportunity to earn a reward, a tertiary reinforcement, so provided the history of the behavior SIT has been sufficiently rewarded during many repetitions, the dog should be very excited to hear the word!
So, let’s not worry about naming all those mini-steps and let’s concentrate (in silence, please) on rewarding the behavior over and over. This will actually be fun for your dog and with lots of practice your dog may even learn to respond with your back to her!
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