A Dog’s Eye View: Consistency, clarity count in dog training
October 17, 2013
Steamboat Springs — I had asked some visiting nieces to tell me about their dog, Buddy. They all agreed they loved him very much but said he was stubborn and not too smart. They said he didn't respond very quickly to a couple of cues, namely "come" and "sit."
It occurred to me to conduct a demonstration with them that might shed some light on their perception. Here's what I did:
I asked each niece to show me how she cued Buddy to "come" then "sit" verbally and with body language. I asked their mom to do the same. They were quite enthusiastic about being the one to have it right. I could see their understanding was more about what they conveyed as individuals rather than about what Buddy understood.
Each child and the mom used different verbal cues including words, tone of voice, volume and repetition of the cue. Some said, "Buddy, over here." Some said, "come!" Some made kissing sounds. Each person also used different hand and body gestures. Sometimes a single gesture such as pointing their finger at Buddy meant "come here" and "sit." Finger snapping was high on the list of cues. This meant anything from "come here" to "pay attention."
In the end, after some embarrassed giggling, they saw what might have been the problem. Rather than Buddy being stubborn or stupid, I explained that I thought he actually was a rather smart dog. He effectively had learned to respond to these two cues by sorting out the intention of four people using different signals. More confusing were the different consequences he received from each person. Sometimes he was petted. Sometimes he was ignored. Sometimes he was yelled at for being slow. Poor Buddy.
We had a family discussion, and they agreed on a single set of verbal and body language cues for Buddy. They also decided it would be clearer to Buddy if he were reinforced consistently with a treat when he got it right. Actually, he had it right all along. The family also decided they could be better about agreeing on a plan before teaching Buddy some tricks.
In my mind, Buddy, in essence, had learned to speak English, French, Spanish and German with all of the accompanying cultural body language. And what a sweet disposition he has. He just figured it out and did his best. I wondered if I could do the same under those circumstances.
Good boy, Buddy.
Sandra Kruczek is a certified professional dog trainer with Total Teamwork Training with more than 25 years of experience.