I cannot stand micromanaging my dog’s behaviour. There is a certain point when I expect my dogs to behave. I hate repeating myself, and I really hate sounding like a nag.
When we think of obedience, the command/obey sequence is what typically comes to mind. It is what most dog owners first learn. Say sit, and when the dog sits, reward the dog. Continue practicing until the dog sits when told to do so. I have no objection to this. Being able to communicate with your dog is very useful. Stylized commands are extremely useful in competitive environments.
Constantly reminding the dog of expectations can get old fast. Some expectations never change which means it would be nice if the dog did them without having to give a command. For example, I never want the dog eating the cat’s food. My dinner is always off limits. Jumping on visitors is never okay. Darting out the car door without permission is downright dangerous. Really, I am never going to want any of these things.
I don’t want to give a command. I don’t want to give reminders. Dear dog: Just do what you are supposed to do.
It’s a lot like little children. We expect that young children need reminders to “flush the toilet.” However, there comes a point in time when seriously – you just should not need to be reminded to flush.
If that sounds demanding, it is. I demand it of myself to train my dog to understand that certain behaviours are expected at all times. In order to achieve this, we need to expand the idea of what constitutes a command.
Traditionally, commands are words or hand signals that tell the dog what to do. Who says that commands have to be limited to words or stylized gestures? Actions and situations can act as commands too.
Dogs readily learn that our actions mean something. We pick up a leash and they run to the door in anticipation of a walk. You don’t have to say a word to speak volumes to your dog.
You can use this ability to intentionally to create “commands” for your dog. If the context or situation reminds the dog of what it should be doing, you no longer have to.
Environmental commands or contextual cues have a wide array of uses. Teach a dog to sit for visitors, without being told to do so. Have them wait until released from the car. For this blog, let’s work through “leave the cat’s food alone”.
Start by ensuring your dog has a reasonable grasp at leave it. I teach it by reinforcing movement away from treats as shown in this video that demonstrates with American Sign Language. A verbal cue is taught in the same manner.
Next, bring out the cat’s food. Continue working leave it, giving the command and reinforcing the dog when it is correct.
At some point, the dog will jump the gun, offering the leave it BEFORE you ask for it. I call this a genius moment. Your smart dog has decided to leave cat food alone without being asked
Celebrate this. Reinforce it – generously. Give treats. The dog has noticed that the cat dish being placed on the ground predicts the leave it command. With repetition, placing the food on the ground will become a command of its own.
Cat food in the bowl = leave it.
The finished product makes for a very peaceful co-existence with our dogs. The following video shows Kip, Karma and Icarus demonstrating a few variations. You will see both dogs leaving the cat food alone. In addition, you will see the animals leaving treats thrown to the others. I do not like my guys charging and battling over food. I never want my dogs charging at dropped or thrown food unless given permission to do so. It’s an excellent candidate for a context based command.
As you watch the video, notice the following key points.
- There are no verbal commands or reminders given.
- The dogs are free to do any appropriate behaviour they like. This is not a stay.
- Notice the calm and disinterest. It comes from consistency and generous positive reinforcement.
Most importantly, listen to the silence. Our dogs are capable of learning that situations have meaning. Our training has to come up to their abilities. Watch for those moments when dogs offer genius. They might be fleeting at first. With reinforcement, they can blossom into so much more.
(I have used the word command throughout this piece for readability. Many pet owners recognize it. Trainers often use the word cue instead because it implies communication while the word command can feel like an order. By command I really only mean a word, gesture or situation that communicates information to the dog – an antecedent.)