Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Get It, Then Name It

Imagine you're in a foreign country. Your guide, who does not speak English, is trying to get you to do something. You're not sure what it is – a custom, perhaps? Maybe a gesture that means something in this country? You really have no idea, but your guide seems to think it's pretty important, and you want to fit in. He keeps moving your body and arms around, but you can never seem to quite get it right. Whatever it is.

But the worst part is that your guide keeps saying, “Griznaq!” at you. You have no idea what “Griznaq” means, but he keeps barking it at you, in progressively more agitated tones. “Griznaq! Griznaq! Griznaq!”

Pop quiz: Do you think that him saying “Griznaq!” over and over will it easier to learn what he wants you to do, or harder?

Harder, right? Well, guess what? This is a metaphor for dog training. Ha! Bet you didn't see that coming!

When you start teaching your dog a new behavior, you need to keep in mind that your dog doesn't know what you want her to do. This may seem obvious, but it's easy to forget in the moment. Watch someone teaching their dog to Sit for the first time. They'll say “Sit” before bringing the treat up to their dog's nose. Then “Sit” again as they try to lure the nose upwards so that the butt will drop down. And probably a couple more times before their dog finally sits.

What's worse, is if the dog doesn't follow the treat and sit pretty quickly, the owner will say, “Sit!” even more. “Sit. Sit. Sit! Sit! Sit!

Griznaq. Griznaq. Griznaq! Griznaq!

The owner thinks they're helping the dog by telling it what to do. But their dog doesn't know what “Sit” means, yet! It's just nonsense to their dog. What's worse, rather than teaching the dog that “Sit” means put her butt on the ground, the owner is actually associating the word “Sit” with confusion and frustration for the dog!

So, here's your training pro tip: First, get your dog to do what you want it to do, easily. Follow a treat with her nose till she sits, quickly and easily each time you lure with the treat. Or follow your hand walking in a circle. Or picking up a ball and bringing it back to you. Any behavior you're training at all. Get your dog able to do it comfortably and quickly and easily, several times in a row.

And then tell your dog what that behavior is called.

Once your dog has mastered following the treat and sitting, you can then say, “Good job. By the way, we call that Sit!” And then each time, just prior to having your dog sit, you'll say, “Sit.”

Very important: You're still not telling your dog to sit. You're teaching them that the the behavior they're already doing (sitting) is called Sit. So, you're still not going to say it multiple times. Just once, before each sit. The average dog needs around 40 or more reps like this – spread over multiple sessions – before they really start to make the connection that “Sit means sit.”

After that, you can sometimes say the command more than once, if your dog gets a bit distracted and needs a reminder of what you said. But be sure to give her a good 10 seconds or so before saying it again. Sometimes – most times – a dog that doesn't respond right away is just trying to figure it out. She knows she learned it that command... but what did it mean, again? It's right on the tip of my nose... Oh, right, put my butt down! Yay!

If you fall back into saying the command over and over again, you're just back to yelling “Griznaq!” at your dog.

Now I need to go teach my dogs to do something when I say, “Griznaq.”

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