Sunday, August 28, 2011

Say What?

During a hotel stay last week, I ran into a very friendly employee who unfortunately spoke very little English. When she tried to talk to me, it made for a very brief but awkward exchange. She would say something that I didn't understand at all and I would look dumbfounded. She would repeat it and still I had no idea what she was talking about. It quickly became evident to me that I had no hope of figuring out what she was trying to communicate so I retreated into "smile and nod" mode. Dogs have to do this all the time! For them it's usually more of a "wag tail and walk away" situation, but it's the same concept.

 One of the most common reasons that your dog doesn't listen to you is that you aren't clear in what you are asking for. Your inconsistent body language, hand gestures and verbal tones all mix together into this fumbling mess that leaves your dog too frustrated to bother trying anymore. If he can't understand the words that are coming out of your mouth (yes, Rush Hour moment...) and he has no idea why your hands and arms are flailing about so ridiculously, he's going to move on to better things. And by "better things" I mean the patch of grass three inches left of your right shoe. Sniffing grass makes more sense than you do in this situation. Fido understands grass.

This example repeats itself on a loop during training classes. I believe part of this is because during a group class, it is easy to feel like you're "on the spot" and it only adds a little anxiety to the unclear communication that was already taking place. It usually manifests itself like this:

  • Dog Parent asks Fido to sit; something he has performed perfectly at home all week.
  • Fido is confused because he is not at home, he is in training class, and when at home, putting his butt on the floor was the thing he did in the living room when Dog Parent sat in the recliner to watch TV. with a bowl of chips (which would conveniently come his way if he had his rear planted). He never actually paid attention to the verbal command for "sit" because Dog Parent talks gibberish all the time and it didn't seem anymore important than anything else that Dog Parent rants about.
  • Embarrassed Dog Parent asks for "sit" again. Repeatedly. Over and over, all the while becoming more and more frustrated.
  • Fido's ears go back, he looks around, sniffs the ground and finally sits because there is nothing better to do while attached to the leash and the frustrated Dog Parent on the other end of it.
  • Dog Parent says, "Hallelujah!" and then goes on about how the dog does what he wants when he wants because he's stubborn.
  • Fido has learned nothing, because Dog Parent assumed that he knew what was being asked the entire time and only chose to wait until the end to perform the task. Therefore, no reward was given for the accidental sit and no clear signal was ever established.
A frustrated person is sometimes quick to conclude that the dog is being rebellious but this is not the case. Yes, there are definitely situations when a dog does know what is being asked but still doesn't perform. However, this is usually because the bar has been raised too high too soon. If the dog is faced with too many distractions too early in his training, it is likely that he won't respond to your cues appropriately. Under those circumstances, it's just a matter of "training up" to your dog being able to handle more distracting environments by starting small and gradually increasing difficulty (while using higher value treats/rewards). But if you're in a place that your dog is pretty familiar with and he's not responding (especially if you're teaching something brand new) you should first consider what types of signals you're throwing out.

Use hand signals. Dogs are very adept at watching us for physical cues, so this can work with us or against us. Stand up straight and confidently and deliver your hand signal clearly. Always use the same signal with the same command/cue and make sure the signal for one behavior isn't too similar to the signal for another. A fairly exaggerated motion can help. For example, the hand signal for "sit" usually starts with your palm down, then flipping it up as you lift your hand. Yes, that is much easier to show than it is to explain in words. That's probably how your dog feels about it too!

Consider whether or not your dog even knows the command. You may have to go back and "retrain" to improve consistency. If you're training something new, make sure that he's repeated the correct behavior multiple times before you even add a verbal cue or hand signal! If your dog doesn't know how to sit yet then he has absolutely no idea what "sit" means and until he does understand, it's just another sound that could confuse him. Use a treat to lure him into the proper position then immediately mark the correct behavior with a click, the word "Yes!" and a treat. Once he's performed this correctly several times you can add the verbal cue and a hand signal so that he associates them with the behavior that you desire.

Refrain from physical force. We naturally want to push the dog into position, scold the dog, or jerk the leash to punish him for his refusal to perform. These are just more forms of unclear, unfair communication. If he didn't understand what you wanted to begin with then he doesn't even know why you're punishing him. If he did understand but was too distracted to perform, then you're either going to end up with a dog that waits for these extreme reactions to perform the behavior in the future, or one that never really learns to behave at all during distracting situations. Those reactions might become part of the cue. A well trained dog is not one who requires a leash jerk or an evil tone of voice to pay attention to you. He offers his attention because in the past, it has been rewarding and because he can clearly understand you.

Dogs usually love their positive reinforcement trainers and that's one of the perks of the job. Dog Parents often wonder why a dog is listening to me but won't listen to them. It is simple. I am clear in my communication, patient when they aren't quite getting it yet, and rewarding when they do get it right. Interacting with me is pretty easy. Can you say the same for yourself? Your dog doesn't have it out for you, he just needs to be trained. Real training involves communication. There are no magic tricks or secret weapons involved. Real training is not browbeating a dog into submission because you're afraid he's trying to rule the world. It is about learning how to "speak" to him on the appropriate level.

None of this is to say that dogs are not intelligent creatures or that they can't pick up on our everyday words. It is no secret that they are very smart. When you grab the leash, your dog probably knows that it's time for a walk. He certainly knows what the food dish is for and that the door bell means visitors. All of these things involve a very clear signal (leash, food dish, sound of the bell) and a very clear reward (walk, food!!, visitors). Those scenarios really sum up how a dog thinks and should be considered any time you are training with or interacting with your pet. Be an educated dog parent and you will create an educated dog.

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