I do say no to things that I think are completely gratuitous.
Amber Valletta (American Actress and Model).
In the past couple of weeks I have noticed a lot of chatter online about something I call gratuitous cuing. As the name implies this is asking a dog to do something just because you want him to do that. The dog is minding his own business, hanging out, maybe lying down and relaxed while the owner is chatting with someone and for no reason other than his own need to show that he can, the owner calls the dog over. There is nothing in it for the dog and the dog may not want to go there, but the owner asks the dog to come anyhow. On the surface you may wonder what the problem is. Let’s look at what this does.
The dog is on his own agenda. There are dogs who just love to do whatever it is that you want, but for the most part, dogs do what is important to them. If your dog is lying down and relaxed, and you call him so that you can touch him, just because you want to touch him, think about what this says to the dog. There are a a certain percentage of dogs who love being touched to the extent that it will be rewarding for them to interrupt what they are doing and do what you want them to do. There are other dogs though who are just tired and want to rest and if they haul themselves to their feet to do as you ask and get nothing for their efforts that they want, then they will stop coming so willingly over time. When the behaviour you ask for is gratuitous, eventually the dog will stop doing the behaviour even if he wants the reinforcer. Why might this be? In a word, dignity. It is not dignified to be treated without respect.
When we live with an animal and we want him to take us seriously, we have to start at a point where we take him seriously first. We have to meet his needs to be a dog, and we have to recognize that our agenda may not always be convenient from the dog’s point of view. One of the biggest complaints that people have about dogs is their uncanny ability to interrupt us just when we sit down to read a book, work on the computer or talk on the phone. We don’t like to be interrupted when we are engaged in activities that are meaningful to us in one way or another and yet, we seem to think it is okay to call the dog to us just because we want to touch or be touched.
The dog notices when we are being calm and still and when we are unlikely to disengage from a task to interrupt them in the activities that are important to dogs. Consider what dogs often do when you get busy with something that you cannot just drop. Often the dog will take that opportunity to engage in activities that they need peace and quiet to complete. When I sit down at the computer, my dogs will often go lie down for a nap; sitting down at the computer is a pretty good signal that I won’t take a notion to go and feed the horses, or take a walk or throw a Frisbee. Those are things that we do together that are meaningful for both of us. Sitting down at the computer means that they can catch a nap without interruption.
Many of my clients have a different experience though. Many of my clients will sit down to read a book and their dogs, realizing that they won’t be interrupted will go and get into things they ought not. A reading human is an opportunity for free access to the trash bin in the bathroom, or uninterrupted counter surfing. Why is it that my dogs sleep when I sit down and disengage from them, but other people’s dogs get into mischief?
The answer is very simple. To start with I don’t ask my dogs to do things that are without meaning. We have such a strong history of doing things that the dogs find meaningful that when I ask them to do something that doesn’t have meaning, the dogs assume that there is some meaning that will be disclosed at some later point. The next thing to keep in mind is that I don’t sit down with a book with young puppies without a plan. If I want to sit down with a book, I have somewhere for the puppy to go, or something for him to do. When my dogs get older I work to ensure that they know that when I pick up a book or sit at my computer, they know that doing so is a signal to them to lie down. By intentionally teaching this instead of accidentally teaching this, my dogs are never left to wonder about what they ought to be doing when I disengage from them.
Calling your dog or disturbing his sleep just to show off how well trained he is has no meaning for the dog and if you really think about it, it is a very disrespectful thing to do, even if you do give him a reward. Dogs who are regularly called “just because” start to weigh whether a reward will be worth leaving something they want to do instead of coming when you need them to do so. Dogs who are woken when they are sleeping, especially when they are startled, can become aggressive because they don’t like being wakened this way. If you need to wake a dog, do it the way that you would like to be wakened, which usually means gently and carefully.
Think carefully about how you interact with your dog; if your goal is to develop a meaningful relationship with him, then you need to spend time relaxing with him and not asking for behaviours that don’t hold any meaning to him. Then you need to teach him some of the things you want him to know how to do such as coming when called, sitting or lying down and staying and walking nicely on leash. When your dog has some skills find places to use them where they will be meaningful to your dog; walking nicely on leash around the block can be an exercise in frustration for both of you; it is gratuitous to do it just because. On the other hand walking nicely on leash between the house and the car makes sense to the dog; there is a reason to do the behaviour. The more often you think about how a behaviour looks from the learner’s point of view, the better your relationship will become.
In my own experience, when you ask for meaningful behaviours that are appropriate in context to your dog, something else happens. You dog decreases his casual interruptions of your own day. Things smooth out. When you ask for meaningful behaviour, and have taught your dog that you won’t ask for behaviours “just because” your dog will in turn stop harassing you when you are busy. Your dog will reflect what you give him, and that is a really powerful step to take with your non human partner.