Sunday, January 29, 2012

Stop talking and communicate!

I noticed something recently that I thought it might be useful to point out. Some people talk to much. Now this isn't exactly news. There are all kinds of people on the planet, some talk alot and some rarely speak at all. What I actually mean is that we talk to our dogs to much. Why is that a problem? Well let me tell you.
Talking to a dog while they are learning needs to be done with clear communication in mind. Typically we teach them what we want, either by luring (using a treat to get the dog in a specific position) or operant conditioning, (clicker/verbal marker) and then we put a verbal cue of our choosing to it. However if we are always making noise, then how is our dog supposed to figure out which noise means something important? Dogs mainly communicate with each other with body language remember, so tuning all of our "noise" out is easy for them.
Example: Handler and dog are working on loose leash walking. As the handler walks he is speaking to the dog saying "No don't pull on the leash, lets go over here Fido. Good, nope! Fido come on. Good. No I said let's go here. OK come on. Are you looking at the kitty?" What do you suppose the verbal cue is for this dog? At this point nothing. The dog has no idea what words WE want to be important. How could she? We have had the equivalent of verbal diarrhea. It is like when the grownups speak in the Charlie Brown cartoons. (whaa wha whaa) Can you pick out the important words from that? No because it all sounds the same.
So what we need to do is use only the words we want the dog to respond to. Either we click (then treat) when the dog moves in the right direction with us, or we verbally praise the dog for moving with us the very moment the dog does it. "Yes!" (verbal marker/treat) "Good dog!" That's it. No running commentary. The exception to this would be if a dog becomes afraid of something when on our walk. I might say "Oh its just a silly garbage can!" in a HAPPY tone of voice as we move away from the scary item. Tone of voice is important however and we don't continue talking aside from marking behavior we want (yes!/treat) or using our verbal cues. (let's go, sit, stay, down, etc.) We teach the dog what we want before we attach a verbal cue to the behavior.
For simply walking along with a loose leash I use the verbal cue "Let's go". Come means come to me and sit, not come along with me. "Heel" means to walk in a specific spot with me, not to just walk along with a loose leash. It is important to have different verbal cues so we don't confuse the dog. This is one of the more challenging parts of dog training, training ourselves to have specific terms and words for different behaviors.
When problem solving you need to ask yourself a few questions:
Do I have my dogs attention? If the dog doesn't know you are talking to him/her than the game is already over. This is why focus work is important.
Does my dog know what I am asking for? If they don't know how to sit then asking for it multiple times will not help you accomplish the task.
What is in it for them? Have we established a positive relationship with our dogs and paid them for the work they do? You wouldn't work at your job for free would you? So why should our dogs??
Finding out what motivates your dog is very important to the equation. This is why many times I can get other peoples dogs to work for me when they are having difficulties. I have learned how to get good focus and I pay them for their work. I am also very clear in my communication so the dog isn't confused. To much talking is counter productive to our task. If you want a sit, say it once and then wait. Be sure to PAY them the moment they do what you ask. (more about using food, and other things as pay can be found in this post: )
So I hope that helps explain why how much you talk to your dog is important. They aren't trying to ignore you or push your buttons. They just don't always know what it is that you want from them. Good luck and happy training!


Hannah said...

Great post, Marie!

I only babble on to my dogs when we are in bed cuddling and it's clear to them that they don't really have to be paying attention to me; they can just keep snoring while I kiss their ears. :]

Karen Lee said...

I like your comment about it being important what you say.