“Friday, get off me!” “Eco, it is not your turn right now.” “Who wants treats?” “Eco, come help me check the horses.” “Breakfast time! Everyone in their crates.” “Just Friday.” “Go find your toy.” “You have lots of toys-you do NOT need the puppy toys!”
Above is a sample of the things I have said to Eco and Friday this morning as they hung out with me in the kitchen. Does it sound like I am talking to a couple of toddlers? In many respects, dogs operate much like toddlers do. They pick up common phrases and integrate them into their daily activities. They learn that specific words mean specific things, and they learn what activities predict what other activities.
Something I have noticed over the past couple of months is that how people talk to their dogs deeply impacts how successful they are with their training. When I have clients who don’t talk to their dogs, who don’t verbally acknowledge their dog’s preferences and dislikes, who don’t engage with their dogs, I notice that their dogs don’t connect with them in quite the same way as those of us who do! Connection is the cornerstone of the training I do with dogs. When I am connected with my dog and my dog is connected with me, then we can go on to great things.
For the most part, humans are a verbal species. We talk to one another. We share our thoughts and ideas through sound. When we are alone with our dogs, many of us talk to the dogs. When we go suddenly silent that is a signal to our dogs; sometimes it means we are busy with something like a book or the television or our computers. Sometimes it means that we are resting. Sometimes it means that we are upset or angry. Dogs evolved to notice what we are doing.
When we go silent AND still that is of great importance to our dogs. Think back for a moment to the last time you walked into a room and stopped talking and stood still. This is a really abnormal behaviour, and our dogs notice this. It is almost like an alarm bell to them, and when we do that, without even trying, most of our dogs have learned to do something; if we have been been startled or surprised by something we are unhappy about, many of our dogs will leave. They read, quite correctly in most cases that we are upset and if your dog has been scolded when you are upset they know to leave. If you are startled or surprised by something that concerns you or causes fear, they come closer to be a part of the group against whatever may have frightened you.
There is a school of thought that says that training ought to be silent. In this school of thought, we need to get out of the dog’s brain space and stop interrupting what the dog is doing with senseless chatter. Certainly there are times when I shut up and just work on a shaping exercise, but I think that when we get too silent, when we don’t connect with our dogs, we put a significant block between us and the dog that interferes with their ability to learn.
Dogs know what we say in given contexts. When loading my dogs into the truck I always say each dog’s name and “hup” as they jump in. I never explicitly taught the dog to hup into the truck; it just happened. When Friday wants to climb up and get in my lap when I am working, I tell her to get off me, just as I would tell a toddler who tried to climb in my lap; this always precedes me either standing up or sending her to a mat or her crate, so she learns that sequence of words as a predictor of something. I certainly didn’t consciously plan to teach her that, but it sure is handy!
Given that I am suggesting that talking to your dog and moving around while you are teaching them things, there must be some guidelines for what to say, how to move and when to say things, right? Right! When I am training a dog to do something for me, I use words that will remind them of what we are doing. First off, I don’t start training until I am engaged with my dog. This means that I have cleared out a time to train, and organized a goal for that session. If I am going to work for an hour, such as in a class, I will usually start out by gathering items for my training. This is the first signal to my dogs that we will be doing some learning. It is fairly straightforward; if I start cutting up treats and the dogs are around, they will notice that and usually they will approach me and look at me. This is an opening to the conversation. At this point I will tell them what I am doing, much as I would tell a toddler what I was doing. I might say something like “Look, I am cutting up rollover for class” and I will often share a piece with them. Total freebie; just a sample of the better things to come.
Once or twice through this routine and my dogs know that class is going to start and they keep an eye on what I do with those treats. If the treats go into the training bag, then most of my dogs will hang out with me, with the training bag or by the door. They know what is coming and they want to participate. They know they don’t go to class without me and they also know that they can depend on me to do some predictable things. This is a useful thing for a well trained dog to do; it shows that they can anticipate the next action and the words I use around the activity are an important part of the connection we share.
Once we get to school, I go in, set up my gear, and then go get my dog. My dogs are usually pretty pleased to go to class, even though they often go every day and even though they may have to wait in a crate until it is their turn. When it is their turn, I call out to them as I approach their crates and I greet them just as I would any other person; I say hello and I use their name. This becomes a cue to the dog that we are going to do something together. Sure, I could mechanically open the crate and not greet my dog, but why would I? Training is something I do with my dog to build a better relationship! It is something I do with my dog to move beyond simple skill acquisition and into deeper meaning and relationship. By calling my dog’s name out and saying hello, he or she knows that I am tuned in to the work we are going to do together.
One of my clients several years ago called me in because her dog had become aggressive towards her. I asked her when this happened, and she told me that whenever she tried to wake the dog up, the dog would attack her. “Watch” she said, and she quietly approached the dog and thumped her on the chest! No warning, no name called, just walk up and attack. Predictably, her dog woke up in a snarl of teeth and fury. I would bite you if you woke me up like that too! My client had been told that the dog ought to accept any handling at any time and the way she interpreted that was that it was her right to scare the heck out of the dog any time she chose! By simply being gentler, tuning in to her dog and using her voice, she was perfectly able to wake her dog any time she wanted.
There is little point in disturbing your dog gratuitously. I teach my dogs skills too and the words I use to set those skills in motion are used with care. I don’t call my dog to come just because I can! I call my dogs for dinner, when they are wandering too far from me or when we need to leave. Otherwise I don’t call them just for the sake of calling them. Doing so would down grade the value of the words that I use to communicate with them.
Coming back to class, once my dog is out of her crate I let her know which door we will be using to go toilet, and what class we are going to. My dogs might end up in any of a wide variety of classes and by saying “First we have to go out the back door to pee, and then we will be going to help teach another dog to greet dogs nicely” my dog can learn to anticipate what is coming. In my experience I don’t find that I have to be particularly accurate in this cue either; I just talk to my dog.
In class, my dogs know what to expect and they follow along quite nicely. When I need them to wait while I figure something out, I ask them to lie down and stay and they do. By the time they are a year old, they don’t need treats to do so because they know that lying down in class is usually followed by an activity. They are willing in part because over and over again, I have asked them to stay while I set up equipment and they get to use that equipment after I set it up. Watching me get things organized has become reinforcing in and of itself.
When teaching new skills, I use cues to communicate what will earn a reinforcer for the dog, and I also teach my dogs to recognize when we are learning a new behaviour. I start new behaviours with a rapid fire series of clicks and treats. Then we play shaping games until I get what I want. It is a dance that I teach the dog and it is punctuated with encouraging words but not cues. This is important. If I for instance have a dog who will come when called but I want to work on coming in straight for a formal recall, I won’t use his already established cues for coming when called as that would result in an interruption of what we have already done successfully; it would not be the new behaviour. All the way through I will tell my dog what a great job he is doing while clicking to mark the behaviour I want, and placing or tossing the treat in the direction that I need the dog to move in order to start the next step of what we are working on.
Dogs are wonderfully flexible in their ability to learn what we want of them, and to put together the signals of what is coming next. It is up to us to make certain that we are not misusing our words. During the phase where my dogs are acquiring skills, I cut down my cheerleading and I just name the behaviour they are doing so that they know what it is that they are doing. Once they are aware of the skill and the name for the skill I start to integrate that word into the dog’s repertoire as I talk to them at home. In this way, as with a toddler, they acquire new words, and new skills and that creates an ever deepening level of connection between us. In the end, that is why I talk to my dogs, and that is why I train.