Monday, April 12, 2010

English lessons - points to ponder

One of the downsides to my other job at the vet is listening to owners yell at their dogs regularly. This most commonly happens when it is time to get on the scale. First they yell at them if they balk about stepping on it, then they yell at the dog to sit when clearly the dog has never practiced that particular exercise outside of their own home, if at all. People either lack patience or expect to much of their dogs in a stressful environment. (BTW it is not necessary to sit on the scale, simply standing still on it also works for our purposes of getting a reading.)

It occurred to me that when we teach children to speak we do it over a specific amount of time. No one expects a toddler to understand many words until they reach a certain age. Even then we are patient and understand they may not be able to communicate clearly nor understand what we are saying to them. Yet with our puppies, we expect that they should catch on almost immediately. People are always amazed when I explain that their dog might not know the meaning of a word, like sit, until we teach it to them over time.

Here is a simple test for your dog to see if they understand the word sit. Say the word (our verbal cue) without moving your body or your hand. Do they respond? Sit down in a chair and ask them to sit, do they? Lie down on the floor and say the word sit. What does your dog do? If they do not sit in each situation it may be because they do not really know the word. They may be sitting in response to an inadvertent body cue instead. To a dog standing may be part of their sit cue!

People need to understand that English (or whatever language we happen to speak) is not a dogs first language. Body language is how they communicate with each other. Sometimes they use vocalizations as well. Either as a way to vent energy, frustration, and excitement or as a distance increasing behavior. (Example- Barking with or without a lunge may mean "go away from me!") But for all dogs their body is their first communication. That is why our body language is so important during training. They are paying attention to that foremost.

Why aren't we as patient with our dogs as we are with our children? Dogs can only learn what are actually teaching them after all. They are also learning with every interaction from us which is why consistancy is so important. If we don't do the groundwork for each exercise, how can we expect them to know what we want in a distracting or stressful place? That hardly seems fair to me.

The next time you ask your dog to do something and they don't respond, ask yourself, do they really understand what it is you want them to do? Think about it. You may be surprised at the answer.


Anonymous said...

The most frustrating thing is when you just *know* they are choosing to ignore you. My Akita will sit in the house, in the yard, in front of the house, to get in the car, where-ever... until there is anything else possibly interesting going on (such as on a walk) at which point you might as well be the wind for how much she listens.

Marie said...

For that situation I guess I would 1st ask: Did you practice, and pay her enough, for good responses during training? This is how you build focus on you and interest in what the words mean. Because the second thing to know about dogs is they they are very much "What's in it for me?" animals.

If you are calling them to come away from something they deem more interesting you are poisoning your recall cue. Go get them instead. And make sure they are looking at you before you call them. Some dogs are so over focused on what has their interest that they literally do not hear you.

Good luck.

Aragon greyhounds said...

Excellent post.
As a veterinarian I see the same behavior with people and their dogs that you describe.

My agility trainer is big at teaching sit and down from a stand and a sit position. And an immediate response-no repeat commands. This is to carry over to table work in a trial. It initially was suprising to me that the dogs would quickly sit from a stand but a chair position would be a different story. You are correct they are reading our body cues as much as listening to our voices. With greyhounds it can be a bit more challenging than with Border collies, Goldens, Shelties and the more traditional obedience breeds. But it is really rewarding to have obedience and agility judges suprised that a greyhound can work so well.