Group dog training classes are a superb environment to learn about human behavior. Most run for 6-8 weeks, during which time the ebb and flow of the class dynamic changes dramatically. In the first week or two the enthusiasm and anticipation of both dogs and owners is palpable. Of course, there is often also a good bit of frustraion in the air. Many pet parents arrive suffering from varying degrees of dissatisfaction regarding their dog’s behavior. The same can often be said for the canine at the other end of the leash in regards to their human companion.
One of the most obvious ways to gauge the human frustraion level is to simply listen. In the first week or two, there is a lot of chatter going on between most dog/handler teams, which includes: Stop it!, No!, Sit!, Off!, Down!, Leave It!, Shush! Most of the dogs, even the young pups who have only been in their new home for a few weeks, have loads of experience with this one way banter, and the typical canine response is to ignore it. It should come as no surprise that this seems to escalate the human frustration level and result in further verbal pleadings and reprimands.
Of all of the many parts of training methodology that are covered in a class, one of the most important is to help people see their dogs as something other than furry, little people. Don’t get me wrong, my dogs are truly members of my family. But, since I love them so much, I try my best to remind myself regularly that they see the world very differently than I do. It is not necessarily better or worse, just a vastly different perspective and ability to absorb certain information. While a dog’s sense of smell may be far more acute than ours, one of the many ways dogs are different than us is that they don’t have our verbal language skills. Dogs are masters at canine gestural or body language (as one might expect). But, verbal communication is our forte. When teaching our dogs, we need to be a bit less eager to verbally tell them what to do and focus more energy on showing them using reinforcements, management, and gestures. Dogs may often discount what we say (as it may be difficult for them to understand), but they are watching every movement, glance, and behavior.
Staying quiet and calm when teaching gives your dog the best chance to pick up on those things which they are most adept at understanding. Whether you are waiting for your dog to stop bouncing and jumping so you can reward calm and quiet (by opening the front door, for example), using a lure to move your dog’s head up and slightly back so he sits, or standing in front of him with a treat or toy and waiting for him to offer you a sit so you can reward him, staying quiet allows your dog time to process the situation and think about what behavior is likely to get them what they want. Then, all you have to do is reward them the moment they figure it out. Repetition of this process builds strong learning muscles for those behaviors you want your dog to excel at.
Once you are confident your dog is reliably offering a specific behavior, you can name it. That is, if you know you can show your dog a treat or toy and he will most likely sit to get it, then say “sit” right before he does so. Again, loads of repetitions in many 3-5 minute training sessions will result in a dog who starts to understand that the word “sit” means to put his rear on the ground which may result in him getting something he wants.
In our group dog training classes we ask pet parents to come up with a dollar amount they are willing to bet on their dog’s successful response to a verbal cue. If they aren’t willing to bet that amount, then they shouldn’t use a verbal cue yet. For example, if the dog is just learning to come when called, and is reliably running to them in their home when they gesturally prompt the dog (by kneeling, opening their arms, etc.) then by all means they can add a verbal cue of saying the dog’s name and calling them.
However, if the dog is running off leash in a safely enclosed yard and showing no interest in running back to them when they gesturally prompt, then calling will only serve to teach them to ignore further. This situation is an example of a person being too eager to add a cue and doing so prematurely. The dog is clearly saying he needs help to better understand the benefit of running back to his person rather than sniffing the ground or chasing a leaf.
Once they have put in the time and effort to practice with the dog on a long leash, in this environment, with high level rewards they may be willing to bet the dollar amount that he will now come running back in response to a gestural response. If so, they can add the verbal cue right before the gesture so the dog starts to make the connection between the verbal cue, the already understood gestural cue and the reward (i.e. praise, a treat, the toss of a toy, etc.).
In a nutshell, be sure the quality goes in before the name goes on. It is somewhat counterintuitive for verbal creatures such as ourselves. But, it is very much the right approach when it comes to being your dog’s teacher.