We discuss Patricia McConnell's new book, The Education of Will.
In her new book, The Education of Will, animal behavior pro Patricia McConnell goes somewhat off script, or at least, off the script that her readers have been enthusiastically following over the course of more than a dozen books and booklets she’s authored/ coauthored over the years. In it, she explores the ways early trauma can affect a dog’s behavior, and most certainly affected her own.
Bark: Do you think you would have recognized your need for therapy if Willie hadn’t been such a troubled dog?
Patricia McConnell: There is no question that my reaction to Willie’s behavior forced me to recognize that, although I had worked hard in therapy years before, I still had a long way to go to resolve the baggage from my past. I am eternally grateful to him for that. Willie’s fears and reactivity brought out many of my own, and at one point, I realized that I either had to find him another home or dig deeper to resolve the fear and shame I had buried for decades. As a form of therapy and self-awareness, one of the things I did to recover was to write about things that had happened to me. It was only after reading the works of others—including After Silence by Nancy Venable Raine, Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman, and Daring Greatly by Brené Brown —that I began to think about turning my writing into a memoir. I felt that if my story could help one person as much as those books helped me, it would be worth the five years it took me to complete it.
Bk: You write about the “chilling” anger that Willie expressed, but there are some who would dispute that a dog can feel true anger. What makes you certain that’s what Willie was displaying?
PM: Anger is an extremely primitive emotion, and is regulated in the brain and body of all mammals by the same anatomy and physiology found in humans. As I say in For the Love of a Dog, neurobiologist Dr. John Ratey calls anger “the second universal emotion.” Scientists who work with a vast range of mammalian species, from primates to mice, rarely hesitate to describe individual mammals as being angry. In addition, facial expressions of fear and anger are similar in people and dogs. Fearful faces have widened eyes, often with dilated pupils, and the corners of the mouth are retracted. Angry faces have narrowed, “cold” eyes, and the corners of the mouth are pushed inward. That’s the face that Willie displayed on occasion, looking exactly like the human faces of anger studied by psychologist Dr. Paul Ekman.
Of course, we can’t know that dogs experience the emotions of fear and anger as we do. We have a more connections between the pre-frontal cortex and our amygdala and hippocampus, which no doubt allow us to mediate emotion with reason. But in people and dogs, the feeling of being afraid or angry is probably more similar than different, because it has the same inherent function—to protect us from danger.
But, it is indeed possible for a dog to be angry, even though I would argue that centuries of domestication have made that a relatively rare event. What’s important is to not confound what people call “aggression” with anger. Aggression is an action, not an emotion, and most behavior that is labeled as aggressive is indeed based on fear. My dog Willie was both a bundle of fear and one of those uncommon dogs who appeared to be overcome with rage in certain situations. That was part of why it took so long and so much work to turn him around.
Bk: You note that excessive sniffing might indicate future aggressive tendencies. Have any studies been done on this?
PM: I know of no study that has investigated a relationship between vigorous sniffing behavior and intraspecific aggression, but that would be a fantastic topic for a dissertation. I’ve seen correlations between obsessive sniffing and dog-dog aggression cases in my office for more than 15 years, and have also heard other trainers and behaviorists refer to it. Maybe this will inspire someone to do the research.
Bk: You also mention the enteric nervous system, what some have called the “brain in the gut.” Could there have been a connection between Willie’s digestion troubles and his behavioral problems?
PM: Absolutely! This is another issue that begs for more research. Many trainers and behaviorists have seen correlations between behavioral problems related to fear or reactivity and an unsettled gut.
Bk: Do you think we burden dogs with our own expectations?
PM: I do worry about our current expectations of dogs. Not just as individuals who we want to fill so many varied social roles, but also as individuals whose behavior is supposed to be, well, almost perfect. I remember the day when a parent’s response to child being bitten was, “What did you do to that dog? Didn’t I tell you not to bother her when she’s eating?” I’m not saying we should go back to the “good old days,” because they weren’t always so good—not for us or for dogs. And I love so much of the current focus on both science and soul in training, exemplified by what we read in Bark magazine. But I do worry that we are imposing expectations on dogs that are as much a burden as an opportunity.
Bk: As part of our 20th anniversary celebration, we will be asking dog-world luminaries to comment on what they consider to be the biggest advancements/changes they’ve witnessed in dogdom during the past two decades. What’s your take?
PM: First, let me say what a joy and an honor it’s been to contribute to The Bark magazine throughout the years! I think the success of the magazine is the perfect reflection of how our relationship with dogs has become richer and more nuanced than it was in the past. It’s also a symbol of what I think is perhaps the most important difference in dogdom: the acknowledgment that canine behavior and our relationship with dogs are important and legitimate research topics.
When I defended my dissertation in 1988, one of my committee members said, “Well done. I didn’t know anyone could actually do any decent science that involved dogs.” And look at where we are now! Our relationship with dogs is one of the world’s most miraculous and also one of the most interesting, and we can learn from it for decades and decades to come. Thank you, Bark, for helping make dogs, and dog behavior, the focus of both art and science.
Well done indeed!
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
It’s extremely contagious behavior
Dogs frequently join in when they hear other dogs howl, and even in response to wolves doing it. In this clip from the movie Zootopia, the filmmakers nailed the contagious nature of this canine behavior for comic effect.
In the next video, a dog in front of a television that is playing this movie clip begins to vocalize in response to the realistic howling. The additional howling by the German Shepherd enhances the movie soundtrack considerably. Please note another amusing feature in the video. I refer to the large number of toys on the chair and the massive collection of bones and chews that are piled in the corner. I’m sure this décor is familiar to many of us!
All around the world, dogs are howling, and we know that this behavior is contagious. Please let me know if your dog responds to the howling in Zootopia!
News: Guest Posts
Is your dog guilty of either offense?
Taking many male dogs out for a walk can be like taking your own little watering can out for a spin—a splash on the light post, a few drops for the fire hydrant, a dribble over an old pile of poop, a good soaking of the neighbor’s prize roses. Males aim their urine for marking purposes, so there’s no doubt that they are able to direct the stream quite accurately.
They are able to put their precious urine where they want it to go, but I’ve yet to see a dog who purposely avoided spraying something in the great outdoors. For the most part, that matters very little to us humans. One patch of grass or tree is pretty much like the next from our perspective. Yet there are times when I wish that dogs would try to avoid dousing various things that get in the way, especially their own leash and any other dogs who are out on the walk with them. I’ve never seen a dog make any effort to make sure that these objects stay dry as they share their liquid calling cards with the neighborhood.
Leashes get wet pretty regularly on walks. Few people have avoided this little drawback of dog guardianship. It happens especially often with dogs who turn around multiple times before lifting a leg. Many dogs do this, circling two, three, four or more times in essentially the same spot before peeing. This behavior serves to tangle them up in the leash or at least to step over it, leaving the leash in the perfect spot to get caught in a urine stream. It’s irksome for anyone holding the leash or who owns the house where the leash is to be hung up later, isn’t it?
Also at risk of being hit by pee is any other dog in the vicinity, especially if both are on leash, guaranteeing that they are in close proximity to one another. Since dogs out on walks together so often sniff the ground together and make little effort to get away from one another, I suppose it’s inevitable that someone gets peed on. As one is still stiffing an amazing smell, the other one decides to mark that exact spot, paying no attention to the fact that his buddy’s head is in the way. Sigh.
Some dogs clearly object to being peed on. My buddies Saylor and Marley illustrate this. Marley is a bigtime marker, and Saylor loves to follow him to sniff whatever he is sniffing. As a result, on occasion, he has inadvertently marked her head, neck or back. However, he has not done it lately, as far as I know, because Saylor now leaps out of the way. She takes advantage of her quickness and agility to avoid Marley’s pee, often jumping swiftly in whatever direction is required. It seems obvious to me that Saylor recognizes the behavioral signs of an impending pee and wants nothing to do with it. As soon as he starts to lift his leg, she is out of there.
I’m mostly accusing males of peeing on dogs and on leashes, but females can do it, too. It may be less likely for dogs who squat to pee (typical for adult females) than for dogs who lift their leg to do so (usually males), but it is by no means just a male issue.
Has your dog peed on his own leash or on one of your other dogs?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
How does your dog react to people, cats and dogs?
Recently, I had a client whose resource-guarding dog reacted very differently depending on who in the household approached him when he had a toy. His responses varied with the species of the individual.
The other dogs in the house are watched closely if they come near the dog in question when he has a toy. He will go still except for his eyes, which track their every move. If they try to pick up one of his toys, he will growl and charge at them. He will take toys from them and hoard them even if they all started out with matching toys given to them by the guardians. If you only saw him around other dogs, he presents as a classic high-level resource guarder—what’s mine is mine, what’s yours is mine. However, he reacts very differently to the other two species sharing his home.
The human adults and the child in the household can do whatever they want with this dog’s toys. They can pick them up, remove them from the dog’s mouth, walk by them or even step on them. The dog is completely relaxed no matter what happens to his toys at the hands (or the feet) of the people in his family.
The cat can walk by toys, approach the dog while he is playing with a toy or even cuddle up with him when he has one without eliciting any reaction. If she picks up a toy up or lies down on top of one, the dog rushes over and takes it.
This dog lets people do anything related to toys, and lets the other dogs in his house do nothing related to them, but takes an intermediate stance with the cat. He is unwilling to tolerate the cat taking possession a toy, but as long as she does not attempt to do that, he does not object. It’s difficult to know exactly why this dog behaves as he does, though I think it’s safe to assume that he does not regard the dog as a human/dog cross. It’s possible that the dog’s actions are based on species, but the differences may simply reflect his response to each of the individuals in his multi-species household.
Do you have a dog who reacts differently to the various species in your home when they approach his toys?
Good Dog: Studies & Research
They show a bias against them
In a study called “Third-party social evaluations of humans by monkeys and dogs” scientists evaluated capuchin monkeys and domestic dogs to investigate their responses to people after watching them interact with other people. Specifically, researchers studied their evaluations of people who were either helpful or who refused to help another person. There’s an entire behavioral area of research involving what are called “third-party social evaluations” which simply means the study of how individuals respond to people after watching them interact with others.
In the experiment with dogs, the person pretending (for the sake of science) to be in need of help was the dog’s guardian. The dog watched as the guardian spent about 10 seconds attempting to open a clear container holding a roll of tape. In the “helper” situation, the guardian then turned to one of the people on either side of him/her and held out the container. The helper held the container so that the guardian could open it. The guardian removed the roll of tape, showed it the dog, put in back in and replaced the lid. In the “non-helper” condition, the person who the guardian turned to for help responded to the non-verbal request for assistance by turning away, at which point the guardian continued with the unsuccessful attempts to open it. In both cases, there was a person on the guardian’s other side, who was not asked for help.
At the end of this role-playing situation, both the person who was asked for help and the other person next to the guardian offered the dog treats. When the person had helped the guardian open the container, dogs were equally likely to take the treat from either person. However, when there was a refusal to help, dogs were more likely to choose the treat held by the person who was not asked for help. Dogs chose to avoid taking treats from people who were not helpful. This study found similar results in capuchin monkeys, and the same pattern is well known to occur in children.
It is interesting that dogs act as though they assume that people are okay and trust them—until they have evidence to the contrary. In this study, they gave people the benefit of the doubt, reacting just as well to people who were never asked for help as to those who did provide help. Once they observed someone refuse to help their guardian, though, they avoided taking treats from them. This matches the experience many of us have with dogs in that behaviorally healthy, well-socialized dogs seem to like and trust people in general. It as though dogs pursue a “trust unless specific information advises me to do otherwise” strategy regarding social interactions.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Behavioral changes may be falsely attributed to age
It’s natural for an older dog to rest more, to play less and to be without the pep so prevalent in earlier years. The aging process changes us all, but that doesn’t mean that every change in an elderly dog is due to aging. Sometimes a dog is feeling unwell, and we make sense of his actions by attributing it to his age. This is especially true when the decline is gradual.
We often don’t realize that the behavior we’ve been seeing is a result of a medical issue until it is resolved. That’s when people say things like, “He hasn’t been this energetic in three years!” or “It’s been so long since I’ve seen him play with our other dog. I thought he just didn’t like to play anymore.”
Recently, I had a friend share with me that her 12-year old dog was diagnosed with cancer. The dog has recovered well from the surgery to remove the tumor, and is currently undergoing additional treatment. The change in him in the six weeks since learning he was ill has been remarkable. He is eager to run at any pace and to go on long hikes, which is in contrast to the indifference he exhibited towards these activities in the last couple of years. He is playing with the other dog in the house, a seven-year old female, which he has barely done for two years. My friend is thrilled to see him doing so well, and appearing so energetic and happy. She is also heartbroken with the realization that his “old man ways” were because he was sick, not because he was getting old. She wishes that she had known to get him into treatment earlier, but nobody could blame her. He went to the vet regularly and had no obvious signs of the illness until recently. The decline in energy as well as losing interest in play happened so gradually, and at the age when it affects most dogs.
I’ve heard many similar stories over the years, because it’s so easy to attribute a general decline in energy and playfulness to getting older, when that may be only one piece (or no part!) of the explanation for the changes. Have you had the experience of realizing that your old dog’s behavior wasn’t just due to the passing years?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Having your dog’s attention is one of the most important and underrated aspects of positive dog training. It’s obvious when you think about it – how can you train your dog, if your dog doesn’t pay attention to you? Luckily, we’ve come up with three simple and fun exercises designed to help get your dog’s attention, making training your dog a little easier.
TEACHING YOUR DOG TO BE A GOOD STUDENT
Training your dog to pay attention teaches them to be a good student, ensuring that they will sit quietly and wait for instructions – once these foundations are in place, training your dog will become a great deal easier. Later on, we will cover two of the best attention exercises available, which are centred on being a good student, paying attention and awaiting instructions.
Although it is often underemphasised by dog training experts, ensuring your dog is capable of paying attention is one of the core principles in positive reinforcement training, and an absolutely necessity if you are to ensure your training is a success. This post aims to rectify this issue, by providing you with the mind-set and training exercises required to train your dog to be pay attention – eventually leaving you with a happy, well-trained and trusting member of the family!
HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOU HAVE YOUR DOG’S ATTENTION?
The easiest way to see if your dog is paying attention to you is to observe whether or not he is looking at you and following everything you do closely. Once you have an attentive dog, this will be very obvious, especially to other family members or friends, who will note that your dog seems to follow you around and work for your attention – particularly at feeding time!
However, it is worth remembering that some dogs are discrete – they might not seem interested in where you are or what you’re up to, but the moment you disappear, they’ll appear right next to you – my dog can even be upstairs while I’m working downstairs, but the moment he can no longer hear the sound of me typing on my computer, he’ll come down to check that I haven’t nipped out without him. This is attention in a nutshell - when your dog is aware of your movements and what you are doing at any time of day.
IS HAVING YOUR DOG’S ATTENTION REALLY NECESSARY?
You might wonder if all this talk about attention is overrated – this outlook is typical of more traditional or ‘old school’ trainers, who believe you can get better results by forcing your dog to pay attention when you demand it. In my experience, though, this approach doesn’t work anywhere near as well – there’s a notable difference between a dog who focuses on you because he has to, and one who focuses on you because he wants to please you. The goal of this post is to help you reach a point where your dog is focused on pleasing you, as this is the easiest way of training him successfully.
DON'T TAKE YOUR DOG'S ATTENTION FOR GRANTED
In my experience, dog owners take a lot of things for granted – too many, in fact. When a dog first comes into the home, he relies on us completely, and we have his full attention at all times. After a few weeks, however, your dog will relax into the environment and encounter new, fresh and exciting experiences which are more interesting than you – and that’s not good news for your relationship, particularly where training is concerned. By remaining at the centre of your dog’s world, you’ll not only enjoy a stronger bond with your dog, but stand a much better chance of being able to train him successfully.
So how do we accomplish this? With consistent training – every day, all year. By making training a habit, you’ll make it second nature for both you and your dog, ensuring you’ll have the basics – sit, come here, down etc. - covered quickly and efficiently, allowing you to move onto more complicated routines.
Now that we understand what it means to have your dog’s attention and why having your dog’s attention is so important, we can move onto the frameworks we use for teaching attention, along with a few simple exercises you can undertake to ensure your dog is always paying attention to you.
YOUR DOG KNOW WHEN YOU'RE NOT PAYING ATTENTION
First things first - when training your dog to pay attention to you, you have to really be present with your dog, not just physically but mentally; remember, your dog can feel you! He knows when you’re sad and when you’re happy, and certainly knows when you are lying and when you are not. By taking an active role in training your dog, you can make the framework very simple, rewarding your dog not only with treats but praise and happiness. Here are three of my favourite ways to train your dog to pay attention to you:
DOG ATTENTION EXERCISE #1 – EYE CONTACT
The first exercise is based around eye contact, and is the exercise that teaches your dog to sit quietly and pay attention to the teacher. Grab some treats and then sit beside your dog, waiting for them to look at you. This requires a bit of patience the first time you train this, but hang in there – it’s worth the wait! Once your dog lifts its eyes to meet yours, praise them warmly (or use your clicker) and reward your dog with his favorite treat. Then simply keep still and wait for them to meet your gaze again - keep doing this until your dog understands that he will be rewarded for looking into your eyes, and he will be more than happy to do it whenever necessary.
DOG ATTENTION EXERCISE #2 – HAND TARGETING
Sometimes, you’ll need get your dog’s attention in order to protect them from something that might harm, scare or upset them. Occasionally dogs will become fearful and, naturally, will look to either run away or attack – neither of which are desirable outcomes. However, it is possible to interrupt this natural response by training your dog to keep attention on you even in stressful situations. Try putting your hand in front of your dog’s face, the palm of your hand right in front his nose. Say nothing, as it is important that your dog learns to make these associations for himself. Once your dog touches the palm of your hand, give him a reward in the form of praise or a treat. Repeat this exercise, and eventually your dog will come to understand that when your hand is down, he can receive a reward by touching it – and while he’s focused on you, he will be unable to focus on whatever might be scaring him, allowing you to avoid conflict with others and protecting him from harm!
See the below video for an example of how to do this.
DOG ATTENTION EXERCISE #3 – IMPULSE CONTROL
This exercise is called impulse control, and is really more of a concept that an exercise, because there are so many variations to work with.
Once your dog knows that he should be looking at you (see exercise #1) you can use this when training him. For example, you can ‘drop’ something from the kitchen table and if your dog tries to grab it, simply cover it with your foot. When your dog then sits and eventually looks at you, make sure to praise him and then allow him to eat the dropped food. Once more, your dog will learn to associate looking at you with praise and a reward – and over time will begin to realise that everything he wants can be channelled through you. As far as your dog is concerned, you are the origin of everything that is good in life. Clever, right? See the following video for more information.
As you can see from the video above, treats are often used as a reward for behaviour we wish to encourage. With this in mind, I usually retain around half of my dog’s rations, which I distribute throughout the day during training sessions. If treats are not withheld, your dog will either lose motivation to be rewarded or simply end up overweight – by rationing them and associating them with good behaviour, you can ensure your dog is healthy and well-behaved.
In summary, the most important, fundamental principle of dog training is attention – both your dog’s and your own. This element of training is sadly underutilised by most dog training experts, so make sure you don’t make the same mistake – ensure your dog associates paying you attention with rewards and praise, and you can ensure your training exercises are easy and successful. Good luck with your training!
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Familiar dogs prompt generosity more than unknown dogs
Dogs will give food to other dogs. Okay, maybe your dogs don’t show this tendency at home enough for you to believe it, but in laboratory settings, it happens. (It happens in other species, too, especially in various primates and in rats.) A recent study of this behavior found that the details of the experimental situation influence whether dogs choose to give food to other dogs or not.
“Task Differences and Prosociality; Investigating Pet Dogs’ Prosocial Preferences in a Token Choice Paradigm” investigated prosocial behavior—voluntary behavior that benefits others. In the study, dogs were trained to touch a token with their nose to deliver food to another dog who was in an enclosure, or touch another token that resulted in nothing happening. This is a different experimental design than has previously been used in which a dog could pull a shelf with food on it so that the food reached a dog in another enclosure, or pull an empty shelf.
In the experiment with the tokens, sometimes the dog in the enclosure was one that the “giving” dog lives with, sometimes it was an unfamiliar dog and sometimes the enclosure was empty. In some trials, there was a dog next to them when they were choosing whether to touch the token to give food away. Sometimes they were alone when making their choice.
The study found that 1) Dogs were more likely to give food to dogs who they live with than to dogs who are strangers. 2) Having another dog with them made them more generous, meaning that they were more likely to give food when they were with another dog rather than when they were alone.
To be fair, the dogs were not literally sharing the food out of their own bowl. They were choosing to act so that food would be given to another dog, but they didn’t lose out on any food by giving to the other dog. Still, it’s nice to know that dogs can share food, even if what we most appreciate about them is their ability to share love!
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Puppies are most responsive to this type of talk
Baby talk may make grown-ups sound ridiculous to many people, but that doesn’t take away from its value. Extensive research has shown that human infants are better able to learn language when we talk to them using higher pitches and at a slower speed than when we talk to other adults. This style of communication is called “infant-directed speech”, and it’s natural for many folks to slip into it when addressing young individuals, especially those who are not yet verbal.
A new study called “Dog-directed speech: why do we use it and do dogs pay attention to it?” suggests that the same principle may be operating when humans speak to dogs—another of our social partners who don’t fully understand our language. People tend to talk to their dogs in a way that is similar to the way they address children. There may be value in this “dog-directed speech” as well.
This study investigated the behavior of two species, and reported a major finding about each of them. On the human side, only women were studied, and researchers found that they used dog-directed speech with dogs of all ages, but used higher pitches when they were talking to puppies than when addressing fully grown dogs. For the canines, this worked out well based on their age-related responses to the way we talk to them. Adult dogs were equally responsive to normal speech and dogs-directed speech. Puppies, however, became more engaged when addressed with dog-directed speech than when the women spoke to them as they normally talk. Specifically, it was the higher pitch in the dog-directed speech that influenced how attentive puppies were.
There are many questions that flow naturally from this study and its intriguing results. Do men talk to their dogs with higher-pitched, slower speech patterns, and does the age of the dog influence the degree to which they do it? Do dogs who look more juvenile because of larger eyes, shorter muzzles and bigger heads elicit dog-directed speech more than dogs who have a more mature look? Does dog-directed speech facilitate language learning in dogs as it does in human babies?
Do you talk to your dog using a different speaking style than the one you use for adult humans?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Protect the Cue
No matter how much work you put into training your dog, it often seems like there’s an army of folks conspiring against you, determined to derail your efforts. Maybe Uncle Ian loves to roughhouse with your dog, or perhaps your daughter’s best friend encourages him to jump up on her every time she visits. It could be that your dog-sitter forgets to give him a treat if he comes when called, or your neighbor thinks it’s hysterically funny to chase your dog when he steals a sock and runs away.
Out of necessity, I have developed defensive strategies to prevent other people from wrecking both my own and my clients’ best-laid training plans.
Training dogs is simple in theory but complex in practice. The goal is to teach a dog to perform various behaviors on cue, so that when we ask a dog to “sit,” the dog’s behind hits the ground, and when we say “come,” he runs to us without hesitating. All we have to do is to teach the dog what those cues mean and make it worth his while to comply, but the details of how to do that are anything but straightforward.
Complexity enters the picture in so many ways, including: How to teach the dog the behavior (shaping, luring, capturing). How to reinforce the dog (using a primary reinforcer such as a treat, belly rub, game of tug or new chew toy versus a secondary reinforcer like a click or a cue for a favorite behavior). Proofing the dog to be able to respond to a cue in a variety of situations (including distractions up to the level of “squirrel”). The trainer’s skills and expertise (timing of the reinforcement, length of training sessions and when to stop them, the order and speed of progression through each step in the process).
On top of all those challenges, other people can mess with our cues, and this can cause them to lose meaning, change meaning or be weakened—to break the association we have built in our dog’s mind between the cue and the desired behavior. People sometimes even create new cues that promote undesirable behavior. Luckily, there are many ways to prevent other people from hijacking a dog’s training cues.
The Poisoned Cue
It takes a lot of consistent work over many months to teach a dog a totally reliable recall—to come when called every single time. I like to think that for a well-trained dog, the cue “come!” means “Whatever I’ve got here, she’s got something better over there.” In actual practice, that level of perfection—the dog always receives something so wonderful that he is glad he came when he was called—is hard to achieve, but the goal is to be as close as possible.
Many of us achieve a good recall with cues we don’t intentionally use. For example, lots of dogs come every time they hear the crinkle of a bag of treats or see us pick up the leash. To most dogs, those actions are linked with getting treats and going for a walk because of the exceptionally strong association between the cue and what follows.
From the dog’s point of view, the spoken command “come!” rarely predicts something so reliably great. This is partly because we’re up against other people who call our dogs-in-training to come and don’t reinforce them when they do so. Luckily, you can usually swamp these occasional “oops” moments with plenty of better experiences.
The real recall-killer, however, is calling a dog to come and then doing something that is aversive rather than reinforcing. When a dog associates a cue with something bad, the cue has been poisoned, and the dog will resist responding to it. So, if a dog runs to a groomer who called him to “come” and then clips his nails and gives him a bath—both of which he hates—the cue is being poisoned. The aversive can be something obviously bad (being yelled at) as well as something less obviously negative (the end of play time).
A cue is rarely poisoned by just one or even a few misuses, but repeated bad experiences are a different story. Because it’s difficult to fix a poisoned cue, the best option is to change it. Yes, it’s possible to reverse the dog’s negative association with a cue, but it’s less work to build a new association. For example, “here!” or “this way!” are good alternatives to “come.”
Teach a New Response
Years ago, I lived in an old farmhouse while it was being renovated, so workers were in the house with my dog, Bugsy, while I was at work. I knew and trusted these men, and wasn’t worried about his safety and well being. In fact, they loved my dog so much that their enthusiasm became a problem.
Each time they arrived, there were effusive greetings all around, which included encouraging Bugsy to jump up on them. He was a big dog and they got a kick out of how close he was to their height when he was on his back legs with his front paws on their chest. The problem was that I didn’t want my dog’s front paws on anybody’s chest. In fact, after I adopted Bugsy, I spent months “de-jumping” him—teaching him not to jump up like that.
A week into the remodel, I came home to a dog who jumped on me with great joy and enthusiasm. Though I was, of course, pleased to see him, the joy and enthusiasm were all his. I was totally joyless and unenthusiastic about the return of this behavior; among other things, I was concerned about him knocking over a child or my frail elderly neighbor, or upsetting people who like to keep their clothes free of dog prints.
Also, as a professional dog trainer who referred to Bugsy as “the best résumé I’ve ever had,” I saw a lot of awkwardness in my future. If he jumped on people during public appearances or when I was using him as a demonstration dog in group classes, I was going to look foolish. Immediate action was necessary. My first strategy—asking the guys not to encourage Bugsy to jump up on them and explaining the reasons why—had no effect.
After observing that the men patted their chests to encourage Bugsy, I came up with a solution. I taught Bugsy to sit whenever people patted their chests. In other words, I wrecked the workers’ ability to invite him to jump up by making that action a cue to sit. After a few weeks, my efforts paid off. A fellow who had just started working with the crew told me that he tried to get my dog to jump up, patting his chest as he told me this, but that the silly mutt couldn’t seem to figure it out. He actually implied that maybe my dog was stupid because he sat instead. (It’s not my dog who can’t figure out what’s going on, I thought, with considerable satisfaction.)
To prevent the workers from finding another way to invite Bugsy to jump up, I showed them how to cue him to shake, wave or high-five after he sat to greet them. Luckily, they found these tricks more entertaining than having him put his paws on their chests, so I didn’t have further problems.
When it comes to a defensive strategy, choosing atypical cues has an upside. If your cues are standard (“sit,” “heel,” “down,” “come”) and you use “okay” as a release for “stay” and “leave it,” then your dog is more vulnerable to training sabotage from other people. Someone can poison the cue or make it irrelevant by saying it endlessly even when the dog is clearly not going to respond. This often happens with “come” and also with “drop it,” which many people say to a dog who is holding something in his mouth. The result is that the dog learns that those sounds are meaningless, making it harder to teach him to respond to them appropriately in the future.
If you use unusual cues, or words in a foreign language, you protect yourself and your dog from these problems. How likely are most of us to come across people who try to communicate with our dogs using the Dutch “af,” meaning “down,” the French “ici” for “come” or the Czech “zustan” for “stay”? Avoiding the release word “okay” in favor of the less-common “free” or even a random choice such as “jailbreak!” or “all done” prevents interference from other people.
Specific defensive strategies are useful, but none are as effective as taking charge of the situation and doing everything you can to be assertive about what happens around your dog. Few people are skilled in dog training, but for the most part, they mean no harm. (If someone is purposely wrecking your dog’s training, they don’t deserve to be around either of you.) Most people will do the right thing with some direction, and that can prevent them from causing training trouble.
So, manage the situation. That may mean preventing access to your dog, especially in your absence. It can also mean saying in a straightforward way, “He came when he was called, so give him this stuffed Kong,” as you hand it over.
If someone is encouraging your dog to steal things and play keep-away, tell them exactly what to do instead, and why: “This will teach him to make a game of stealing things, and I don’t want that. Instead, let’s encourage him to trade that sock for a handful of treats.”
If someone is playing rough with your dog, tell them, “He’s not allowed to play that way because he gets too excited and starts biting, but here’s a tug toy that he will like playing with even more.” If that fails to change the person’s behavior, you can intervene by enticing your dog into a game of tug with you, or by saying, “When he gets overly aroused like this, I put him in his crate with something to chew on so he can calm down,” and then do exactly that.
Dog training would be tricky enough if we could do it in our own bubble with no interference from anyone else. As it happens, we do it in the real world where all kinds of unplanned challenges crop up. As frustrating as this can be, there are ways to counteract the actions of these would-be spoilers. Ultimately, we are each responsible for training our dogs and protecting them from setbacks in that training—any way we can.
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