Words Matter

Words matter. Some powerful words above from inaugural poem “The Hill We Climb” by Amanda Gorman, National Youth Poet Laureate.

The words we use to communicate with our dogs matter. In order to effectively communicate, verbal cues need to stand out from our other talk, and to be distinct and different from other cues. Look at your list of cues (it’s time to make a list!) Do they sound different from each other? Short words are best. As humans, we are used to other humans understanding nearly all of our speech, and understanding the information our speech conveys with all its variations. We may assume that of our dogs, or speak to them as though they understand us, while knowing that they do not. How DO they distinguish between words that carry meaning for them and those that do not?

It is helpful to analyze behavior in terms of the ABCs:

In clicker training, the antecedent is the cue, the behavior is the clicked behavior, the consequence is the reinforcement (the treat or other event the dog desires). If we do our training properly, the dog will learn that when A occurs, if he does B, C will happen. If he likes C, he will be more likely to respond with behavior B after being cued with A.

So the irrelevant speech – what does it predict for the dog? For my dogs, my irrelevant speech predicts I may pet them (which they find somewhat pleasing, but not nearly so pleasing as something good to eat) or may eventually do something more exciting like taking them outside or playing with a toy. So it may be worthwhile for the dogs to pay some attention to my “irrelevant” speech that is directed at them because of what it may predict will occur later. It is worth thinking about your typical speech directed towards your dogs, does it predict certain actions of yours in the near future? What does the ABC look like?

And what about your tone of voice? Dogs are aware of, and react to, our emotions. If we are angry, or frustrated and communicate that in our speech, they will react with heightened stress or fear. That’s not the kind of relationship you want with your pet. Keep your communication with your dog positive – happy, upbeat tones and consistent tones are best for cues.

Are you ready to add a cue? Can you predictably produce a desired behavior in your dog in a training session? Yes? Than do the following, starting with the old cue:

The old cue is whatever elicits the behavior in the training session. In targeting, it was the presentation of the target (such as your hand, or a target stick or sticky note). Now, you can say a verbal cue just before you present the target, or just before the dog has access to the target. The target is still (obviously) going to be part of the context of the behavior, but the verbal cue will eventually allow you to inform the dog that you want him to touch the target when he is at a distance from you or the target. The dog (hopefully) does the cued behavior which you mark with a click and then give a treat (reinforcement).

Repeat the sequence above several times, and the dog will begin to understand that the verbal cue predicts the appearance of the target, which he then touches to get a click/treat. Learning! You should see the dog looking for the target after you say the verbal cue.

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