Many people try to attach a cue to a behavior much too early, and they do not realize the potential undoing of their intended hard work. Actually, they make it harder on themselves!
In the beginning we want to name what the dog is doing when they are actually doing it. If you think about this as if you were learning a foreign language, if someone always says “gorp” when you are walking around, you may very well believe that “gorp” means walking around. If every time you stopped walking to sit in a chair someone said “gorp”, you would believe that the word means sit in a chair. If they used that word when you were walking and when you were sitting, you may very well believe that the word has no meaning, or potentially you may connect it to some other behavior, like turning your head to the left. If they simply continued yelling it louder, you might try various things to get them to stop, or you might just get nervous and stop moving all together. Regardless of what you did, you would most certainly be very stressed about it all.
As we start out training a dog what our words mean, we must pay close attention to be certain we can get the behavior before trying to attach a word to it. This requires careful observation of our dogs, as the dog begins a behavior, we say the word. After enough repetitions, the word now has meaning.
You must also pay attention to how you say your cue. For example, “SitsitsitsitsitSIT” sounds a lot different from “Sit”. Simply repeating yourself or getting louder does not teach the dog our language. In addition, avoid giving a cue that you know has very little chance of happening. If my dog is tearing around like a lunatic and I decide to tell her to sit, the chance of that happening is very slim unless she has had a lot of training. The only thing I have done is taught my dog that my words are meaningless to her. I think of this in terms of the dog going through a little roloxdex of cues thinking “Which one is that again? Okay, found it!”. If we are continuously talking to him we will distract him from finding what he is looking for. Say your cue then wait a moment! It is amazing how well the dogs perform when people stop talking incessantly!
I try to avoid thinking in terms of commands because it becomes a matter of “Do it or else”. I do not want that type of relationship with my dogs, and I do not ever find threatening helpful with rescue dogs (or any dog, for that matter!). The hardest thing for many people when starting out in positive training is remembering that a cue is like a green light, it tells you that the chance for reinforcement is available. The cue is unemotional, the cue does not care if the behavior is performed or not. We do.
When a dog does not perform an expected behavior I find it easiest to think in terms of; “Why would I not start driving when a light turns green and how would this relate to my dog?” There are many possibilities, but these seem to be the most common:
- I did not see the light = My dog was distracted and did not notice my cue.
- I tried to drive, but my car won’t go = Something is not working on my dog, something hurts.
- There was a car or pedestrian in front of me - It did seem not safe to go or something was physically preventing the dog from responding.
- The light was purple and I’ve never seen a purple light before = The dog did not know that particular cue.
- There was a green and red light = We were giving conflicting signals to the dog, for instance our body
language says “Stay” but our words say “Come”.