Does your dog listen or watch?

Humans love to talk! We use words to explain things, ask questions, and to communicate with those around us. It makes sense to try to use our words to communicate with our dogs too, but it may surprise you to learn just what cues your pet is picking up on.

When we teach our dog a new behaviour, we usually try to pair that action with a word. As our dog’s butt hits the ground we say “Sit!” and then say what a good dog they are for sitting. What many people fail to realise is that their dog may be paying more attention to what you are doing with your body.

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Wilbur sitting when given a hand signal

We talk all the time, and of all the words we say, relatively few have any significance to our pets. Some words become reliable predictors of fun activities (e.g. dinner, walkies), but for the most part our dogs can safely ignore our chit-chat without consequence. Our body language can be more reliable. If we move towards the fridge, a snack may be imminent. Putting on our shoes could mean time for a walk. It pays for our dogs to pay attention to what our body language is saying, as it is often their first hint as to what is coming next.

Let’s go back to teaching our dog to sit. Even though we may say “Sit!” as their butt hits the ground, how did we get them to sit in the first place? In most cases we moved our hand in a predictable gesture above their head. This may resemble the food lure most people initially used to teach sit. Some dogs even notice very subtle motions, such as us leaning our shoulders forward slightly as we ask them to sit. In the scheme of your dog’s day, paying attention to these things pays off better than keeping an ear out for a particular word. In fact, our body language and actions can be so significant that our dogs don’t actually pick up on the words at all, which is why when you repeat “sit, sit, SIT!” you may not get any response.

It can be very useful to teach our dogs to respond to verbal cues in training, and the good news is that it is actually quite simple. The important thing is the order that we offer our cues. To teach our dogs a new verbal cue, we first want to teach them the behaviour (using a food lure, target, shaping, etc). Then we can use the following method to add a new cue:

NEW CUE (e.g. “Sit”) – OLD CUE (e.g. hand signal) – REWARD

It is very important that the new verbal cue is offered first, followed by the old visual cue. If we give both cues simultaneously it is likely that your dog will focus more heavily on the visual cue (as that is how dogs communicate most easily). By offering the new cue first, your dog starts to learn that the new verbal cue consistently predicts the old cue, and they will begin to offer the correct behaviour.

If your dog does not respond correctly to a visual or verbal cue, chances are they haven’t yet learned it as well as you think. Take some time to go back to basics with them, and help them out by breaking the behaviour down. Consider if they are distracted, if you’ve practised in that situation before, and if you are adequately motivating them.

Below is a short video of Wilbur demonstrating some of his learned behaviours, offered on both visual and verbal cues. As a general rule he learns visual cues (hand signals) more quickly than verbal cues, but following the NEW CUE/OLD CUE method we have easily taught him both (he can even read flash cards for SIT and DOWN).

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The Social Dog

Most clients i see want to spend time with their dog in social settings – friends houses, walks with friends, dog parks, the beach, etc. Sharing time with your dog and others can be one of the great joys of owning a dog. For some chilled out pooches it comes naturally to be social, but for others it can be more challenging (and some would prefer to stay home altogether).

One of the biggest challenges that we face as we prepare our dogs to be the social butterflies we so desire is the misconception that socialisation equals play. We try to do the right thing with our new puppy or adult dog by bringing them to as many play dates as possible and letting them mingle with other dogs. This can go well, or not…

Recognising inappropriate play can be really difficult for the average dog owner. It is easy for overly boisterous dogs to pursue a more polite or shy dog relentlessly, and equally easy for a shy dog to be overwhelmed without being noticed.

Rather than jumping in the deep end with play, take time to learn about body language so you can interrupt if play goes pear-shaped. The Dog Decoder app is a great resource for any dog owner to learn about basic dog body language.

Also spend time on some foundation training skills with your dog. Teach him that great things happen when he stays calm while other dogs are around. Help him learn to focus on you and respond to cues in the face of distraction. The majority of the time when we see other dogs it won’t be appropriate for them to play (e.g. passing on walks, in training classes, at dog-friendly cafes), so teaching your dog to be calm around other dogs should be your top priority.

When you do introduce your dog to new friends, focus on keeping the play short and happy and space out the play with short pauses where you reward settled behaviour. Happy play involves loose and wriggly dogs, lots of play cues (play bows, loose waggy tails, etc), and respect of the other dog. The players should take turns chasing and being chased, wrestling and being wrestled, etc. If you think either party is not enjoying themselves, pause the play.

Play fighting can easily degrade into actual fighting, and play chasing can become predatory, which is why those frequent breaks let everyone stop and chill, and keep from becoming over-stimulated.

Dog friends are awesome, but only when everyone is getting along and having a great time. Putting your dog in social situations that make him uncomfortable won’t help him to feel better around other dogs, it will likely make him feel worse. Your job as a dog owner is to ensure your dog is safe and happy, and that may or may not include play dates with other dogs.

If you need help with dog training in the Townsville area, contact Treat Play Love today.

Have you trained that?

11249307_10152931504747303_1194799322877169224_nWe have all experienced the frustration of being at the end of the leash while our dog bounces around and seems to be ignoring us completely. Most commonly this happens when something exciting is going on, such as when you attend a training class, take your dog for a walk, or even just when visitors arrive. “But he knows this!” we hear time and time again, while the dog becomes more frantic and the owner more frustrated.

But does he really know what you’re asking? Have you trained that behaviour?

All too often we forget that our dogs are terrible at generalising. This means that while they know how to sit on cue at home, in the lounge room, when we have a handful of treats, they don’t easily make the leap at realise that the same rules apply in new situations as well. We have to go through and break it down for our dog.

Before you take your dog to that busy dog park, or popular walking track, think about the skills he will need to be successful. Does he know how to walk beside you on leash? Focus when other dogs are around? Sit before crossing the road? Watch bikes and scooters pass without barking? Now, think about whether you have helped your dog achieve those skills.

We are often in such a hurry to go places with our dogs that we forget to take the time to prepare them for these things. Training starts at home, but it doesn’t finish there. You need to help your dog learn that training doesn’t stop when we step out of the house. Practice training in the front yard, and on walks around quiet neighbourhoods. Carry treats, reward good behaviour. As you and your dog become successful in these new environments you can gradually increase the challenge. We have to teach our dog that listening pays off, no matter where we are or what’s happening around us.

Failure to train these essential skills leads to frustration, for both you and your dog, and frustration leads us to do some pretty silly things. When we feel frustrated we are more likely to behave reactively, such as yanking on our dogs lead, or scolding them. When we recognise that our dogs simply don’t have the training or the skill set to behave the way we want, we can see that the responsibility lies with us to teach our dog.

If you are having trouble with your dogs behaviour, stop and think about the training you have done and whether it is enough. Join a reward-based chat group, or better yet contact a reward-based trainer for help.