Don’t Let Others Spoil Your Dog’s Training

Protect the Cue
By Karen B. London PhD, January 2017

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.

Unique Cues

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.

Be Proactive

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.

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.

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