By far the most commonly misused cue that I see in pet dogs is the cue “off”. I teach my dogs the cue “off” but I use it very differently than most folks do. I teach it as the opposite of “on” as in “get on the chair”. Or the couch. Or the bed. Or the hay bale. Or the groomer’s table. Then I use “off” to tell the dog to get off of whatever I have asked him to get on. When I have a dog who is struggling with guarding spaces, this is probably the first behaviour I teach; get on the couch, click/treat, get off the couch, click/treat. That is how I use “on” and “off”.
The problem that I observe is that most people use “off” to do something called “counter cuing”. Counter cuing is when the dog chooses to do a behaviour and you cue him to do a different behaviour. The idea is that the dog goofed, and made the wrong choice and you are helping him out. This works well in the human world after all. If you are in the airport and you choose the line that will lead you to priority boarding someone will come along and help you out. If you are supposed to be in business class, you erred in your choice, and they will tell you. If you are in the priority boarding line because you should be there, then they will tell you that too. So when a dog jumps up to greet a guest, most pet owners cue the dog “off”, treating the behaviour the same way an airline employee would treat a traveller in the wrong line.
There is an important difference between the dog who jumps up and the traveller in the wrong line. Usually, the dog who is jumping up is expected to never jump up. The traveller could conceivably be in the priority access line some time. This difference may not seem terrible, but when you put it in the context of learning it can make life really difficult for the dog. Many dogs learn very quickly that “off” doesn’t mean “never”. “Off” means “not this time”. Here is how that works.
When you are teaching dogs a cue, the cue says “do this behaviour and you will earn a reward”. Most people when they are teaching a dog to not jump up, teach the dog that when they stop jumping up, they will get attention, and most dogs who are greeting by jumping up enjoy attention. So what happens is that the dog jumps up, the owner says “off” and the dog gets off and the owner pays attention to him. This creates a sequence that we refer to in dog training as a behaviour chain. I like to think of it as a game where we each take a turn, and at the end there is a reward for the dog. This behaviour chain looks like this:
It doesn’t take long for a smart dog to figure out that jumping up starts the game of you telling him what to do so that he can do it and you can give him attention. The problem is that MOST of the time we don’t want the dog to jump up at all! Because the chain is heavily reinforced each and every time it occurs, the dog thinks that jumping up is the desired behaviour.
So what to do? To begin with, understand that you can spend your dog’s whole life explaining to him that the priority seating line is not for him, and he is never ever going to get the memo. As long as he eventually gets attention for jumping up to begin with, he is going to think that when flying “air trainer” you line up in the priority access line, then you wait till you are told to move to business class and then you get boarded! Starting out by understanding that the dog thinks that jumping up is a required step. Once you understand that, you can start to make changes to change the outcome. Training is a series of steps that starts with our understanding of what is going on and progresses to us changing our behaviour in order to change our dog’s behaviour.
Before I progress on to outlining a few of the ways that I use to teach keeping four paws on the floor, let me add that there is an element that contributes to the problem. Excitement. When a dog is excited he may not remember what the process is. He may forget temporarily what the protocol is, so even when he knows what you want him to do, he has to over ride the temptation to get his face closer to our face when he is greeting. This is really important to understand along the way to success because he may not initially be successful when he is highly aroused.
My first go to change in my behaviour to change jumping up is to just stand there. I am not ignoring the dog however; I am attending closely to what is happening. The dog approaches and jumps up and I turn into a statue. When the dog jumps off me (which he eventually has to do because dogs don’t have terrific balance when on their hind legs), then I pay a LOT of attention to him. It takes very little time with a young puppy to learn that jumping up just doesn’t pay well, and the time spent standing up against me decreases very quickly. Eventually, especially with a young dog, they just don’t bother jumping up; having four on the floor just pays better.
With older, committed jumping greeters, I will usually start by standing quietly until the dog gets off on his own, however in the event that the dog has had a very long history of jumping up, I may need a plan B. In this case I get out my clicker, and as he approaches me, I click and toss the treat BEHIND the dog. This teaches the dog that there is very little to gain from charging at me and knocking me over. It is usually a quick study in the dog approaching at a more sensible speed. At that point I can start offering the treat low and then greeting the dog with all four feet on the floor.
If neither of those tactics work, I have a third strategy I use. The technical description for that strategy is “response cost”. Every time the dog jumps up, I quietly and calmly say “too bad” and put the dog in a crate, behind a gate or out of the room I am in. Most dogs quickly learn that if they jump up they lose all access to me, and if greeting is what drives the behaviour, they have lost the one thing that matters. Their response has cost them something they wanted. My dogs all learn that the cue “too bad” means they are going to lose something they want.
You should notice that in all three strategies, I don’t say anything to the dog about getting “off”. In fact the only time I say anything is if I am going to indicate to the dog that he has lost his turn. Only once he is doing what I want do I start to communicate with him again. I don’t end up with a dog thinking that I actually want him to jump up; he is clear that jumping up either gets him nothing or a trip to his crate or another room. Changing my behaviour results in changing the dog’s behaviour.
I should mention that I see the “off” issue when dogs get on furniture or counters too. The same principles apply. If you say “off” you are really saying “go ahead and get on or jump up until told otherwise” and that just isn’t a very efficient way to train your dog!