Train It, then Name It

When teaching any pet a new behaviour we need to do two things – we need to explain to our pets what we want them to do, and we need to give that behaviour a name (or cue). If we do these two things correctly we end up with a pet who will offer that particular behaviour only when prompted by the cue, and most importantly they will offer it when given the cue.

Most of us, myself included, were taught to go about achieving these two things backwards. We repeat the cue that we would like to use, while trying to make our pets do the correct behaviour. “Sit, Fido!” as we lure our dog’s nose up or push on their bottom, “Step Up, Polly!” as we bring out the sunflower seed or push our finger into our budgie’s belly. Is this wrong? Not necessarily. But is it an efficient, clear, and fun way to teach our pet something new?

Let’s take a look!

The biggest problem with teaching this way is that we are setting our pet up to fail. If they don’t yet understand that “Sit” means put your butt on the ground, or “Step Up” means step onto my finger, then they are quite likely to respond to our chanting the cue incorrectly. They might stare at us blankly, walk away in confusion, or try the wrong behaviour. We get frustrated that they’re not getting it, and they get frustrated that they’re not earning their reward!

So how else could we go about training?

shake hands parrot
Elmo has learnt that “Shakes Hands” means hold this finger.

Say we want to teach our dog to “Sit”. First things first, zip your lips! Your pet does not speak English, and verbal direction at this stage is unhelpful. In this example we will start training using a food reward. We take the treat, move it in front of Fido’s nose, and then slowly raise it above his head. As Fido’s nose follows the treat his head goes up and his butt goes down. Bingo! He’s sitting. Job well done! Now we can work on fading that lure into a hand signal, then we can explain that “Hey, you know when your butt hits the ground? That’s called SIT!”

It is very, very easy to train your pet to offer a certain behaviour, such as in the above example, without ever opening your mouth. This means that when we do add in the name for a behaviour, we can use our body language to ensure our pet responds correctly – we know they will, because we’ve already trained it! Imagine how much less frustrating that is for everyone!

But won’t our pets associate our cue with the behaviour faster if we keep repeating it? No, they won’t. By putting our pet in a situation where they may not respond correctly we are muddying our cue. When i ask my pet to do something, i am asking them to respond correctly first try. If they don’t, i zip my lips and find where the holes are in my training. Maybe i need to go back a few steps. Hearing a cue repeated again and again before actually understanding what they need to do only creates confusion. Does “Sit” mean look up, look left, yawn, scratch, sniff, squat, or what?!

It’s about training smart, and setting our pets up for success without confusion.

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Pass the Salt, Please

You may be wondering what salt has to do with training your pets, so let me explain.

In a e-Book by Sue Ailsby that i’ve been reading (which you can download FREE here), she wrote something that really left an impression with me. She wrote that we should cue our pets to do something just like we would ask a friend to pass the salt across the table. That is we should ask our pets in a happy and friendly tone, rather than telling them what to do in a stern voice.

pass the salt

Why should this matter? For me it comes down to training. If you’ve truly put the time into teaching your pet what a cue means, and you’ve demonstrated that when he does the job he’ll get something good, then you should never need to get stern. If they don’t oblige, you either haven’t trained the behaviour well enough yet, or you need to increase their motivation.

Too often we see owners really getting frustrated with their pets, especially in the dog world. “Fido sit. Sit! SIT! SIT DOWN!!!” Eventually Fido might sit, but not with enthusiasm. He might only be sitting to avoid his owners wrath, or a leash pop, or a hand pressing down on his backside. If Fido knew that “Sit” means put your bottom on the ground whether we’re at home, outside, or at the vet, and he had been motivated well to perform that “Sit”, then there would be no need to get stern.

A friendly tone induces friendly feelings, and when we treat our pets with kindness and mutual respect THAT is when we see great training results. We are way past the days of drilling obedience into our pets. We have the tools to teach our pets any number of useful behaviours without using force or corrections. Next time your pet fails to listen to your cue, look at how you can train the behaviour rather than increasing the volume of your voice.

Train smart, not tough – and pass the salt, please!