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