Defining the Human Side of Dog Training
How do you ask your dog to sit? To stay? To lie down? Many people unconsciously confuse their dogs by using different commands for one behavior, or using the same command for multiple behaviors. For instance, if your dog’s cue to lie down is “down,” using the word “down” in another context, such as commanding your dog to get “down” off the couch, will only confuse him. And why wouldn’t it?
Training dogs can be confusing, to both dog and owner. One thing that can help immensely is consistency on the part of the owner. Consistency denotes that the owner speaks commands and rewards their dog’s behavior exactly the same way every single time he responds correctly to a command, and does not reward the dog if he responds incorrectly.
This can be hard! What dog owners need to understand is that they have to work on the consistency of their own behavior, before they can lead their dog to success.
Consistency goes far beyond repeating the same thing over and over again. This means working on focusing and refining your own skills just as much, if not more so, than on your dog’s behavior. The more consistent you can be, the easier it is for your dog to pick up on what you are asking him to do. One of the biggest challenges in dog training is training yourself to be consistent with your dog.
Here are some suggestions to improve the human side of dog training:
- Pre-determine which commands to use for specific behaviors. Some people may use “here” for a recall, others use “come.” Owners may use “down” to stop their dog from jumping up whereas others use “off.” People confuse the difference between “stay” and “wait” on a regular basis. Want to keep your dog from losing their mind? Make sure to make a list and define which commands go with specific behaviors. Inform friends, family members, and any pet professionals as to which commands you use in order to limit confusion for your dog.
- Keep your tone of voice the same. Many owners will say a command the same way a few times, but then escalate when a lack of response or frustration sets in. Changing the tone, cadence, and pitch will likely confuse your dog. Yes, as humans, we have different inflections, but as soon as the command sounds different, your dog will be baffled. In order to ensure consistency, say commands in a calm and natural tone, and stick with it.
- Keep commands to the same number of syllables and length. Similar to change in tone, sometimes owners will stretch, shorten, or alter words based on their level of excitement, frustration, or approval. Owners who are trying to encourage their dog may lengthen the “down” command to sound like “doooown” while their dog is learning, but switch to a shorter version later on. This can confuse your dog, because the words sound completely different. The same goes with “come” versus “come here.” Pick one way of saying the command and stick with it, so both you and your dog know what you mean.
- Dogs are better visual than auditory learners, which is why professionals recommend the majority of behaviors be taught using both a vocal and visual cue. Ensure to keep hand signals consistent as well — do you hold up one finger or the whole hand for “sit”? Do you hold your hand out for “stay,” or just show your dog a flat palm for a second before lowering it? Do you have a visual command for each behavior? It will help a lot for your dog to see what you want them to do as well as hear it, so make sure to keep a consistent visual cue as well.
- Do not reward your dog when he performs the wrong behavior for a command. If you ask your dog to “sit,” but then he lays down, it is vital to not reinforce this incorrect response, no matter how cute it might have been. By rewarding for incorrect associations, you are simply confusing your dog and potentially creating a frustrating situation in which your dog will try any behavior at a command. Want to refine those skills? Using a short 10 second time-out from training will further help your dog discriminate between a correct and incorrect behavior.
Training requires teamwork in order to be successful. We often agonize over our dog’s response rate when truthfully, we need to reassess and consider our own training skill set. Keep in mind, your dog can only perform as well as you can communicate. Understanding consistency and follow-through can drastically impact your relationship with your dog.