We all enjoy a bit of one-sided banter with our dogs. They make for wonderful listeners, never interrupting or offering unsolicited advice. It’s hard to remember, though, that dogs have a limited language capability and most of what he say to them lands, as “blah blah”. It’s worth reminding ourselves of our friends’ limitations when behaviors go sideways.
Dogs are Visual Learners
Even the amazing Border Collie that recognizes over 1000 words needed visual cues to learn them. Pairing hand signals and words for specific behaviors facilitates learning. Marking behaviors with a sound, such as a clicker also makes learning fun and easy. Most dogs readily offer a “sit”. When we simply say that word, they often appear to understand what it means. We have lots of opportunities to reinforce it. Try standing in front of your dog and asking her to lie down or come to you. These behaviors are not quickly and consistently offered. The dog needs a visual aid, such as a lure. “Down” and “come” have no relevance, until those behaviors are reinforced.
Adjust the Expectation
We humans tend to talk to our dogs when we see them responding to stressful situations. As with our fellow humans, we attempt to verbally quell fears and reassure them that we will protect them. While a few quiet words do no harm, this is not the most effective way to help the dog habituate and feel less fearful. Don’t expect your words alone will change the dog’s stress or excitement behaviors.
The most frequent times of talking too much to the dog are when he is in a state of over-arousal and engaging in undesirable behaviors. Trying to explain to the dog why he shouldn’t chew on UGG boots is unlikely to deter him for long, if at all. Too much talking can increase the dog’s over-arousal behaviors. Imagine the job he has in filtering out which words are relevant. Not to mention, that he has your full attention – while he is doing the wrong thing. Too much verbalizing can also add fuel to our own frustration. One over-amped animal in the environment is sufficient.
Keep It Simple
The best way to use words for changing conditioned emotional responses and behaviors is to make select words relevant to the dog. Those words equate to specific behaviors, which have a reward history associated with them. One or two word cues are simple and easy for most dogs to learn. One cue equals one behavior. Avoid ambiguous cues, such as “sit down”. For the dog, there are two directives in there! Which is it? Sit or down?
When your dog is calm, chat away! Otherwise, limit your talking to simple learned cues to redirect behavior and restore order.
Copyright © Kimberly B. Mandel CPDT-KA, 2019 all rights reserved
Kimberly Mandel Canine Behavior and Training LLC