Why Your Dog Doesn’t Know Sit

When I was a young girl, my grandmother would send gifts of books from Czechoslovakia.  The books were filled with stunning moving pop-up illustrations.  I learned a lot from those books.  I learned how those illustrations popped up.  I learned how one moving part operated another moving part.  What I failed to learn was how to read Czech.  My attention was so fixated on the illustrations that I memorized the words.  I recited the story based on the illustration.  I never focused on the letters.  Illustrations overshadowed the letters.

fox with cheese

Overshadowing is a well-researched part of dog training.  One place it applies involves adding cues.  (Commands for those who still use that term)  Animals, when simultaneously given two or more cues are likely going to learn about the most salient – to the detriment of the others.  Which facet carries the most weight depends on many factors.

Lured downs offer an example many can envision.  Dogs see humans bending at the waist during the lure.  If owners simultaneously say, “down” while luring or pointing, the word is unlikely to register.  Despite dozens or hundreds of repetitions, the dog stays focused on the owner’s gestures.  The word, “down,” becomes irrelevant background noise.  It predicts nothing of importance because with each repetition, the movement gives the dog all the information it needs.  Touching the ground comes to mean “lie down” rather than the word.  Pointing is perfectly acceptable if one wants to touch their toes in order to ask the dog to lie down.  I just don’t know many people who put it on their wish list.

Overshadowing affects many areas of training.  This is not a luring problem.  It can affect targeting, shaping and capturing.  It is not a positive reinforcement based problem.  Overshadowing has far reaching tendrils that reach pretty much everywhere.

Gestures do not need to be grandiose.  It can be as subtle as the wiggle of a finger or a raised eyebrow.  We all have dog training tells much like poker players have tells.  It takes self-awareness to compensate.  Often it takes a second set of eyes to spot them.

did you say something copy

This does not mean hand signals are bad.  Rather that few people want ridiculous signals.  No one wants to touch their toes to get a down.  It’s annoying.  Holding an arm extended for “stay” isn’t useful.  You can’t hold your hand up to sign stay and tie your shoe at the same time.  If you train with a prolonged gesture, that’s what the dog will need in order to understand.

Good hand signals are functional.  It takes effort to teach a great verbal cue.  Teach both but don’t mash them together and expect the dog to recognize them individually.  Don’t blame a dog for misunderstanding cues that were never made clear.

This might seem persnickety.  Who cares if signals are mashed so long as the method is “positive?”  Frankly, it is a problem when many trainers tell clients to mash signals and then encourage “balance” to clean things up.  Many repetitions become justification that the dog ought to know better and do better without recognizing that the repetitions were flawed.

Clients may feel that positive reinforcement failed because the dog is not responding to verbal cues.  This perceived failure again leads to “discipline.”  Positive reinforcement didn’t fail.  It worked exactly how science said it would.  In the absence of another reasonable explanation “dominant, stubborn, willful” can sound reasonable to a frustrated owner.

That’s a real shame because overshadowing is pretty easy to deal with.  Cues need to precede the behaviour without interference.  Fade lures.  Remove training aides during shaping or targeting.  Get a clean behaviour.  Then purposely add in the cue, and only the cue.  Spend a little time highlighting that these words or signs that are important and have meaning.  Do this in a thoughtful and planned way.

If we dismiss science, then we don’t learn about factors such as overshadowing.  I suppose it must be easier to justify corrections and sleep at night if one remains willfully oblivious to such things.  It is a choice to ridicule science and then justify corrections under the pretense of “balance.”

Learning the science is hard.  It demands that we regularly rip off the bandage that protects our fragile egos.  We need to find the thing we have yet to learn.  It goes beyond lip service.  We can’t just say, “We all have more to learn.”  You have to do something about it.

Learn better.  Do better.  Get better results.  Often those who suggest this path went down it before.  At least I certainly have.  There are walls you hit where it seems like something isn’t working right.  Finding out why is worthwhile.

Individually we should all lose a little sleep wondering if there isn’t some variation of overshadowing playing havoc with our cues (probably).  We should wonder if it impacts other areas of training (it does).  We should wonder if there are other effects to learn about (there are.)

Owners absolutely don’t need to learn decades of research in order to train their dog.  The trainers they hire should.

The takeaway for owners is twofold.  First, don’t mash your cues.  Second, science often does have all the answers….and it makes training a lot less frustrating when you work with it rather than against it.

Reaching the Holy Grail of Training

Years ago, I taught our Kiki a formal recall using targeting.  Systematically I proceeded to work through the exercise.  Much to my delight, Kiki developed the most fantastic competition recall.  People gasped at her speed and enthusiasm.  Her formal recall never failed us over the years.  You could say that it had behavioural momentum.

Domjan, in The Principles of Learning and Behavior describes behavioural momentum as, “response persistence in extinction.”  In non-technical language, behaviours with momentum are enthusiastic, despite distractions.  They are highly resistant to extinction.  Behavioural momentum is the Holy Grail of dog training.

behavioural momentum copy

Behaviours with momentum are like boulders rolling down a hill.  Considerable effort is required to stop them.  By contrast, weak behaviours are like pebbles.  The slightest bump in the road and they get derailed.

Sluggish responses are an indication of poor behavioural momentum.  Dogs that are easily distracted have poor momentum.  When sniffing a blade of grass is more appealing than coming when called, recall behavioural momentum is low.  If you wonder if your dog enjoys doing what you ask, then you might have a behavioural momentum issue.

When owners ask for reliable manners, they are asking for behaviour momentum.  They want a dog that walks politely and ignores squirrels.  They want a dog that keeps four paws on the ground, even when visitors approach.  They want fast, immediate recalls.

People want solid, reliable, strong behaviours they can count on.  There is no magic.  Behavioural momentum combines operant and classical conditioning.  Pavlov might always be on your shoulder.  For too many, he’s snoozing, periodically waking to create an unexpected association here or there.  We forget about him and he dozes off again.  Wake him up.  Intentionally create behavioural momentum by using a fast rate of reinforcement.

“Behavioral momentum is directly related to the rate of reinforcement (see Nevin & Grace, 2000).  A higher rate of reinforcement produces behavior that has greater momentum and is less susceptible to disruption.”  The principles of learning and behavior – Domjan

Crazy fast reinforcement triggers two types of learning.  The dog learns the skill through positive reinforcement.  The fast reinforcement creates a positive association to the behaviour.  When dogs love executing learned skills, distractions are less tempting.  That is crazy powerful stuff.

b momentum copy

Food is a natural fit for creating momentum.  Food offers ease of use, speed of delivery and speed of consumption.   Anything that slows the rate of reinforcement can interfere with creating momentum.  Slow reinforcement leads to frustration, boredom and wanderitis.  It is the road to “I’d rather be doing something else.”

How fast is fast?  The following video shows my Karma working with a high speed of reinforcement.  A reasonable goal for initial training is ten reinforcements per minute (or about a third of the reps in the video.)  Reinforcements should come quickly enough that the space between repetitions is devoid of wanderitis.

Slow reinforcement tanks momentum.  The temptation to prove that we can quickly wean away from “treats” can lead to slow reinforcements.  We employ a litany of protocols, “real life” reinforcements, games, variable reinforcement schedules and Premack.  While there is nothing wrong with some of these things some of the time, they are slow reinforcements.

Sluggish, sloppy outcomes tied to poor momentum convince people that positive reinforcement is not reliable or effective.  There’s a real tragic irony in there.  Tactics that we use to convince people to use positive reinforcement may slow reinforcement, sabotaging reliability and enthusiasm.  Weak results convince people that positive reinforcement did not work well enough.  Aversives can trickle back into the dog’s training.

Behavioural momentum is within anyone’s reach.  Both are possible when operant and classical conditioning neatly combine.  Enthusiastic, persistent responses tell us there is no place the dog would rather be.  There is no behaviour they’d rather be doing.  If we say, “sit,” the dog responses with “I thought you’d never ask.”

Creating behavioural momentum is the trainer’s choice to use food to its full potential.  We can choose to decide, today, that we will not only teach behaviours, we will teach so the dog loves doing them.  We owe the dogs that.  If we create behavioural momentum, there will be no doubt in our mind that the dog wants to do the things we ask of them.

There is no greater feeling than knowing you have reliable behaviour from a happy dog.  It really is a Holy Grail worth pursuing.  Wake Pavlov up and get him to work.  He is not just a tag-a-long.

Five Days from Fear to Fun – Classical Counterconditioning.

I decided to spend some of our holiday time working on a whistle recall.  This is when a dog learns to come to the sound of a whistle.  Pamela Dennison has a number of resources on how to teach this skill for anyone who might be interested.

Unlike other whims, I remembered to grab my camera.  When I blew the whistle for the first time, Karma tucked her tail and ran.

I probably should have been a bit more thoughtful in my introduction of the whistle.  However, when you have confident dogs you get accustomed to taking liberties.  Sometimes, Karma bites you in the butt.

Before anyone sends me hate mail, we didn’t plan for this to happen.  We adjusted immediately.  Fear can unexpectedly happen.  I decided to share that one incident because frankly it happens to owners all the time.  It’s the clicker that scares a dog, the dropped cooking pan, the ratting of aluminum foil, fireworks or the whirl of a new kitchen appliance.  Sometimes our dogs get scared.

I thought it would be interesting to put together a time lapse of Karma’s responses as they changed over the course of five days.  It would show the change in her body language and a real time account of what we actually did.

We used classical counterconditioning.  This means that each time the whistle sounded, Karma received a really amazing goodie, mainly turkey.  There were no conditions on her behaviour.  I did reduce the volume and duration of the whistle until she grew more comfortable.  I made sure she was some distance away from me during the first few repetitions.  This made the process easier on her.

The sound of the whistle was initially aversive to her.  Aversive means that it’s something that the dog will seek to escape, avoid or postpone.  At first, you can see that Karma clearly is looking to escape from the sound of the whistle.  By pairing the sound of the whistle with goodies, her emotional response changes over time.

Just because something is aversive for a dog today, it does not mean that it cannot be changed.  Things that used to be aversive can become appetitive and vice versa.  It might have been easier to shelf the whistle recall idea entirely.  Perhaps for some dogs that is an option.  However, as Karma goes to more and more events, I know that eventually someone is going to blow on a whistle.  I do not want her to be startled and frightened if there is something I can do today.

Some people seem to think that classical counterconditioning is hard or doesn’t work. They say it takes a lot of time and effort.  While there are some basic rules to keep in mind, by following the rules, busy people – like myself – really aren’t doing that much work at all.

People fail to realize that long breaks between sessions are beneficial – perfect for the busy dog owner.  In its simplest form, you feed the presence of the trigger.  In this case whistle equals goodies.  You do need to be mindful of things that can block or overshadow the conditioning.  Otherwise, it’s really that simple.  Trigger equals treat.

One thing we did was hide a treat somewhere in the house while Karma was out in the yard.  Later, when she was back inside, I’d blow the whistle and surprise her.  This was done because I was going out of my way to ensure that the whistle predicted goodies.  Not “hand in pocket” or “open fridge door” or “standing in the kitchen.”  It really has to be the trigger that equals the food.  The cleaner you work, the faster the association will happen.

The results in the following video involved the following:

  • Five days of classical counterconditioning
  • Six reps per day approximately (only 2 on the 24th…was busy … it was Christmas eve.)
  • Ten seconds of work per repetition.


Total Training Time
Less than FIVE MINUTES.

I will probably re-visit whistles a few more times.  It pays to finish the job by generalizing the conditioning.  We could work in a variety of locations or work with different types of whistles.  Then we’ll be ready to switch back to our initial plan of a whistle recall.

Yes, I do realize that some dogs have traumatic experience in their past.  Not all problems will go away in five days.  There are dogs with global fears and there are dogs with a history of trauma and abuse.

For the most part, many dogs are just normal dogs that occasionally get scared of one thing or another.  We are the ones who are our dog’s worst enemy. We over think what needs to be done.

We become embroiled in minutia and complexities that are not relevant.  We worry that feeding a fearful dog will reinforce fear.  It doesn’t.  We wait for “good” behaviour instead of just feeding the trigger.  I clearly fed a dog that was afraid and I fed a dog that was not necessarily behaving.  Yet, the fearful response disappeared.  Sometimes it pays to let go of intuition and just trust the science.  Feed the appearance of a well defined trigger.  It works.

Additional resources:

Awesome Dogs Shareables Counterconditioning Collection

Reactive Dogs on Facebook

Fearful Dogs on Facebook

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Stop Nagging – Start Training – Using the environment as a command

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.

It’s exhausting.

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.

stop nagging

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.)

I am a Clucker Trainer

Some claim that there is a new fad running rampant through dog training circles.

It is based on some of that sciencey stuff by Pavlov, Skinner, Watson and Thorndike.  A few well-known trainers such as Breland, Keller and Bailey furthered this fancy stuff by using geeky science outside the lab, causing this new age stuff to proliferate to the dog owning public.

Perhaps you have heard of some of these fads.  You’ll recognize these fancy methods because they use terms such as positive reinforcement, desensitization, counterconditioning and the charming though less scientific term clicker training… among others.  Some feel that these will quickly pass.

I’m still waiting.

It should happen at any moment.  After all, this fad has been around for at least 162 years.  Yes, you read that correctly.

One hundred sixty two years of “fancy” training and counting.

In 1882, S.T. Hammond published, “Practical Dog Training or Training vs. Breaking.”  It begins by saying….

“The system of dog training described in this book is a new one…This system is humane and rational.  It is also practical and efficient.”

Hammond’s book comes after 30 years of him using these techniques.  Do not jump to the conclusion that Practical Dog Training is a book for lunching ladies and their lap dogs.  It is a hunting dog manual.  Many of the exercises are similar if not identical to exercises done today using positive reinforcement and classical conditioning.  Hammond even suggests in places that people “cluck” prior to giving a piece of meat.  I suppose you could say that Hammond was a clucker trainer.


I thought I would share a few excerpts from Practical Dog Training.  If we stick to the strict definitions of the quadrants, not all of the exercises are positive reinforcement and classical conditioning.  Hammond’s book is heavily weighted in that direction.

On Clucking and Treating

“….as soon as his attention is fixed upon the meat, and he looks at it steadily for a second, release your hold and cluck to him as a signal that he can now have it….”

Getting a Dog Accustomed to Gun Shots

“…take the pans to quite a distance from his pen…..When it is time to feed him we go to the pans….we give a stroke just loud enough for him to hear plainly and at once proceed to his pen and give him his feed.  By pursuing this course for a few days and gradually going a little closer every time, he will become accustomed to the sound, and learning that the noise is connected with our coming, and also his dinner, he soon gets used to it, and in a short time will stand the racket without flinching….”

Whistle Recalls

“We think it a very good plan to always have in our pocket something good for him to eat, and when he minds this long note (whistle) and comes in quickly, we reward him with a bit of something substantial as well as with fine words.”

Back chaining a fetch

“In this lesson especial care must be had that each successive step is well and thoroughly learned before proceeding any further.  Thus when you have succeeded in getting him to take a step or two toward you, do not try him at a longer distance until he has had considerable practice at this, and will readily come the one step or two at the word, “bring”;….”

 Fear of Water

“If he shows no inclination to wet his feet you will find it a very good plan to hold a piece of meat over the water where it is but an inch or two deep, and where he cannot get it without putting his feet in….he will learn that it will not hurt him … You should never throw him in no matter how much you feel disposed to do so, but rather let him find out for himself that water will not hurt him, and he will soon lose all fear.”

If we stop to think about it, it is absurd to think that pre-Pavlov, humans could only comprehend or use punishment and coercion.  Using food, as the book points out, is “rational”.  It’s perhaps a bit of a stretch to think that no one, ever, in history ever noticed that animals would work for food or make associations – that it was “discovered” in a lab.

I do not mean to insult or diminish what scientists and pioneers of dog training gave us.  If anything, I think that they gave us something far more important.  We risk diminishing some of their contributions.

  • They gave us a common language.
  • They taught us the details of how to us learning theory and conditioning effectively.
  • They applied those scientific lessons to real life situations and shared that knowledge with those who want to train better.

“Sciencey” terms such as desensitization and positive reinforcement help us better communicate with other professionals.  Guidance from training greats, who applied the science help us train more effectively.

We use OLD dog training methods, based in positive reinforcement and conditioning better because of NEWER information on HOW it works.  That does not mean that positive reinforcement, desensitization or counterconditioing is new, nor is it a fad.  It has been around for far too long to be a fad.

Positive reinforcement not a fad
Trainers who used positive reinforcement before it had a name deserve some recognition.  At least, they deserve a little humility from us.  When it comes to the practical aspects of dog training, not much has changed.  Much of what Hammond wrote would easily flow in a Facebook dialogue on dog training today.

Maybe it is time we stopped bickering about who thought it first.  If we look back across the ages, science describes what we’ve done all along using only a handful of terms:  Reinforcement, punishment, conditioning, extinction, habituation, flooding.  All that we do regardless of training methodology, can be described with the language of the training greats who defer to science.  There is not much new under the sun.

I feel it is apropos to raise a glass and say, “I am a clucker trainer!”  It is not a fad.  Get used to it.  It is practical, effective and rational.  Mad respect to the observational skills of the trainers of old who recognized a good thing when they saw it.  Thanks to the pioneers who taught us how to do it well.

For those who want to read Hammond’s book, it’s available online by clicking (or should I say clucking?) here.

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Blurred Lines – When Approach Means Escape

Imagine that you are locked in a museum.  Evil people have hidden bombs throughout the building.  You cannot run away.  There is no way you can call for help.  If you smash the bombs with a hammer, they explode.   Your only hope is to defuse the bombs.

Rushing about, you seek to find the explosives.  As you find each bomb, your nimble fingers gently open the casing.  You pry apart the mass of tangled wires and you deftly clip the wire and disable it.  Then you rush off to find the next one and the next one.

Why would you run toward something scary?

Why would you run toward something scary?

Which quadrant did the evil villain use?

I love bizarre questions like this because sometimes the insanely exaggerated helps us understand the mundane.  Running around looking for bombs is creepy and twisted.  Thus, it is…interesting.

Plenty of behaviours are increasing:  searching, prying apart wires, clipping them.  We know that this is some form of reinforcement.  There is an obvious aversive (something unpleasant that we would rather avoid).  Bombs are clearly an aversive in the vast majority of situations.  Thus, this is clearly negative reinforcement.  Without the negative reinforcement, none of the behaviours, the seeking or the defusing would take place.

Here is the twisted part.  Generally, we flee FROM things that are nasty, scary, painful, uncomfortable or just plain yucky.  If a tiger is trying to eat you, you probably will run away.

In the bomb scenario, we would run TOWARD the aversive.

While it is natural to flee from aversives, the reason we run toward a bomb is because the behaviours that lead to escape are near or part of the aversive.  In order to escape the aversive, you must search for the bomb, touch the bomb, examine the bomb and cut the wires.

Placing the abort sequence on an aversive creates an odd scenario that causes people to run toward things that are scary, nasty and even potentially dangerous because the behaviour of approaching is part of the escape route.

While our hypothetical example might conjure up images of blind panic, there are other examples that do not.  People who search for land mines do the same thing.  However, it’s with a slow and steady purpose.  As J.M. Lohr points out in Clinical Psychology Review, “”there is no expectation that the predictability of an aversive event will reduce the aversiveness of the event.  Having the ability to safely find and defuse bombs does not make bombs any less aversive.

When it comes to dogs, this sort of “put the abort button on the aversive” scenario is interesting for a couple of reasons.  Two things change when the location of the abort sequence is near the aversive.

  • The direction of escape changes.  Fleeing turns into approach.  Do not assume that approach equals lack of aversive control.
  • Lack of overt fear does not mean lack of aversives.  Calm, cautious behaviour may indicate practice and predictability, not lack of aversiveness.

Trusting common sense and rules of thumb can only get you so far.  Thankfully, quadrants do not lie.  Some might claim that quadrants are fuzzy.  As Leahy and Leahy pointed out, “Just because the boundaries between night and day are fuzzy, it does not mean they cannot be meaningfully differentiated.”

The quadrants are four little boxes – it’s not rocket science.  Changing small details such as the location of the desired behaviour can change everything.  Fleeing takes the form of approach.  These details are interesting and important elements that require our attention.

Exceptions such as these are especially important for trainers and rescue workers who evaluate dogs for placement into family homes.  Approaching children is not necessarily the same as loving contact from children.  It’s an important distinction if one is placing a dog in a home with a child.

Trainers can place abort sequences on or near scary things.  Dogs will learn to approach them.  Anything is possible if you know how to wield the sword of behaviour modification.  The question in dog training isn’t whether you can but rather whether you should.  Sometimes the quadrants get a little sneaky and you have to look very carefully to see if there’s an aversive lurking about.

I’d like to give Jean Donaldson a thank you for her assistance – for letting me ask her questions.  I have never met someone who is so open to questions and helping others.

Go Buy Milk (Or Teach Heel).

Not too long ago, I asked my husband to stop and buy butter and milk at the store.  It’s such a simple request.  “Please buy butter and milk.”  How hard can it be?

Buying dairy is harder than it seems apparently.  Between organic, 2%, skim, homo, fine filtered, lactose free, goat, I know that “Please buy butter and milk” will probably result in a flurry of text messages.

That confusion is absolutely my fault.  I know the dairy counter is filled with wall-to-wall milk choices.  I failed at communicating.

If two humans can miscommunicate about “Go buy butter and milk”, a seemingly easy task, how much more likely is it that we miscommunicate with our pets?  We are not even the same species.

For example, heel position means many things.

  • Put your behind on the ground.
  • Do so beside my left leg.
  • Keep your body parallel to mine.
  • Sit tall.
  • Look at me.
  • Move your body into heel following a precise series of steps.
  • Sit not too close and not too far away.
  • Learn to control your hind end as you swing in tight.

Sit in heel is about as complicated as “Go buy butter and milk.”  There is a lot going on behind that very simple request.  Communication is hard.

How hard can sit be

Dogs can learn to understand us.  They are at an incredible disadvantage.  Using words is not in their nature.

Some handlers have a knack for making these skills look easy.  It’s not because they have some magic in their pocket, but rather that they engage in thoughtful, planned training.   Communicating a beautiful heel position is a skill – like a teacher that captivates a classroom or a couple that understands each other’s nuances.

A skill taught well to a dog, polished and finished is an indication that someone cared enough to teach well.  We should absolutely celebrate improvements along the way.  However, habitual crooked sits or the inability to wean away a lure speaks volumes.  Never finishing and polishing a skill is a shame.

The art of completing just one skill, from start to finish speaks to the question:

“Can you communicate with your dog well enough that you can finish and polish behaviour?”

Which skill does not matter.  No one has to enter the world of competition behaviours.  Completing your dog’s “shake a paw” trick is a very worthy goal.  Get the behaviour on cue and achieve stimulus control.  At least it has the benefit of stopping enthusiastic and repeated swatting and scratching of people’s arms.  It develops skills that carry over to other real life scenarios.

The beauty of a perfect heel, chase turn, rear cross or cute trick is not in a ribbon or medal.  It is in the experience of learning to finish a task from start to finish.  We learn to persevere, adapt and communicate more fully.  The dog shows its comprehension by demonstrating the skill – flawlessly.  The dog learns to attend to the cue, and not a lure.  Dogs learn to offer behaviours only when asked.  Our gestures and movements begin acting like spoken words.

Make that journey.  Achieve the most perfect form of behaviour possible.  Eliminate lures, create stimulus control, and work on minute position changes on at least one skill because it’s an important skill to have.  Eliminating lures and contextual cues in a routine are the same skill set found in rehabilitation programs.  They are not optional accessories in a dog-training toolkit.  A trick can be a opportunity for growth.

Effort is required for the simple things, perhaps even more than for the complex.  Mistakes glare on simple skills.  It’s just you, the dog and a sit.  Not much hides a sloppy sit or unfaded lure.

Failing to communicate all the elements of a behaviour is not much different than saying, “Go buy butter and milk.”  It’s too vague.  Be prepared to eat some crow when they bring home buttermilk.  Don’t expect dogs to do much better with partial instructions either.

Good communication looks like magic, but it is really just a whole lot of effort on our part.  Only in its absence do we miss it.  It is something that everyone can achieve with their dogs if they set a goal, create a training plan and go for it.  Start with, “just one behaviour – as close to perfection as possible.”  Finish it.  You may find that it gives you something more valuable in return.