How to be a better dog trainer

Providing clear instructions is critical in dog training. Have you ever thought about the cues we give our dogs from their perspective? Over the years I am sometimes completely amazed that a given dog is able to understand the trainer at all. All trainers present many different signals to their dog without knowing it. Have you ever said, "Sit" at the same time you are moving your hand in the "Sit" hand signal that you have taught your dog? That is called "blocking", which is presenting a dog two signals at the same time. The dog might learn one signal, both, or neither. In that case, is the cue for "Sit" the verbal cue, the hand signal, or the combination?

If you want your dog to learn BOTH the hand signal and the verbal cue, try this: say the verbal cue with a quiet body (no extraneous movements,) and then after one second, help your dog with the hand signal. If you have not established a hand signal cue, work on that first.

Lesson learned: Don't expect your dog to learn two things at once. Separate the two with a slight pause.

Next I want you think about specific language. What does "Sit Down" mean? Does it mean "Sit" or "Down?" People have a tendency to speak in synyonyms, colloquial speech patterns and slang. That is fine if you teach your dog all of those specific terms. But if you have not, don't expect her to know them. Use "Sit" or "Down", but don't use them together.

Lesson learned: Be specific with your language. If your dog is having trouble with something, ask someone to watch one of your training sessions to determine if you are being clear with your instructions.

One of the most common confusing messages that I see all the time is when people say, "Down" to their dog when she is jumping on people or on furniture that is off-limits. I recommend teaching "Off" to mean "keep your paws off that person or object". "Down" should be reserved for lying down. One reason that I am such a stickler about this point is that the meaning of the cue gets diluted over time. Think about asking your dog to "Down" off of your guests and furniture many times a day and then expecting them to lie "Down" when you want them to? You have defined one cue to mean two very different things.

Lesson learned: Define each cue to mean one behavior.

The last example is the common usage of "Leave it" and "Drop" used interchangeably. The lesson is the same as “Down” and “Off”, but there is a more noticeable and dramatic reason for making sure you are consistent. You could save your dog’s life by paying attention to this rule. If you need your dog to "Drop" something that may hurt her, you don't want her to pause to interpret what you mean. You want her to do the behavior as a reflex response. Many people use “Leave it” to mean both: “Move your mouth away from that object” and, “Drop it” to mean, “Open your mouth”.

Getting snappy, consistent responses requires conditioning through repetition of behaviors paired with a cue many, many times. Think movements in sports, responding to orders in the military, and typing as three examples. Why do athletes at any level practice for hours and hours? It is to get muscle-memory of behaviors and achieve a level of comfort with the action so there body easily does the movement without a lot of thought. This allows them to refine their movements, think about strategies, work on their role and not get bogged down in the details.

Have you ever asked your dog to do something and then gotten a really delayed response, or none at all? Of course you have. I have, every trainer has. That is part of the learning process. If you define “Leave it” to mean two different things, will your dog have a snappy response? Possibly, but you are leaving too much room for interpretation. Teach, “Leave It” to mean “Move your mouth away from that” and, “Drop it” to mean “Open your mouth”.

Lesson learned: Snappy responses require repetition of behaviors paired with a cue many, many times.

Hopefully this gives you some ideas for ways to make training more efficient. 

Happy Training! 

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