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I've said it here before: specific words don't really matter in dog training because dogs don't speak English (or French, or Swahili or any other human language). 

Dogs learn to associate certain sounds with certain actions for which they've been rewarded or punished. For example, after a number of repetitions, Rover figures out that when his human makes the sound "sit", he (Rover) has better get his fanny on the floor. How many repetitions it will take depends on a number of factors, including the way the connection of the sound and the behavior is made by the two-legged member of the team, how innately rewarding the behavior is to the dog, how bright and how willing the individual dog is, how persistent the human is, and more. This is pretty common sense stuff, but many people still persist in believing that there is some kind of magic in finding just the right word that will make Rover perform. And if that magic word doesn't work, these folks think, it's because they didn't say it loud enough. Or often enough. Which nonsense brings me to this topic, the judicious use of words.

I'm not a clicker trainer, but I certainly appreciate and use the concept of a conditioned reinforcer in dog training. By this I mean a sound which tells the dog he has done the right thing and that a reward will be forthcoming. In clicker training, the dog begins by learning that the click sound means a food reward is coming. In making this initial connection between sound and reward, the food comes immediately after the click. I have heard this referred to as "loading the clicker", and it's a fabulous idea - if your dog will stay in the same room with the clicker. Unfortunately, none of my dogs has been willing to stay in the room with what they consider an upsetting sound, no matter what kind of treats I have, which has made this tool less than effective for me. I must admit, I've never started them with the clicker as puppies, and I admit I've successfully used the clicker with Zeb (after harassing him for months until he figured out the clicker wasn't going to eat him). So, is this an anti-clicker diatribe? Heavens, no. I've watched some really skilled clicker trainers (Julie Daniels comes to mind) mark tiny pieces of behavior like the arc of a jump with awe-inspiring accuracy, but I'm not willing - or most likely able - to develop the high level of skill needed to train that way for the type of precision work I'm looking for in the obedience ring. Instead, I prefer to rely on my voice. And my word for positive reinforcement is "Yes". When my dog hears the magic "Yes", he knows a treat or other reward is coming. I prefer "Yes" to "Good" because I like the little hissing sound of "Yes", and because we tend to throw too many "Goods" around indiscriminately in training. Obviously, you can use any word or sound you'd like to convey the message to Rover that a behavior is about to be rewarded. Some folks choose an unusual word or sound, which is fine, provided you can remember which one you chose. The subject of how to reward and how to get Rover to wait longer and longer for a food or toy reward will be the focus of a future column. Right now I just want to focus on the words.

So now we know how to give a positive marker like "Yes". What about a negative marker? I don't want to get into a discussion here about whether a dog can be trained using only positive reinforcement. My experience is that there are some behaviors that can be trained without any negative feedback to the dog, but I have yet to see a dog trained without any aversives who wasn't obnoxious on a day-to-day basis, and who was reliable in the obedience ring. What constitutes an aversive? An aversive is anything the dog perceives as unpleasant. Now, don't start thinking about whips and chains here. For many dogs, something unpleasant can be as simple as the handler turning his back on an undesirable behavior. I was giving a seminar on handling a number of years ago, in an area of the country where heavy physical corrections were the only training method used. As I demonstrated a retrieve with one of my dogs, the dog anticipated the command and went after the dumbbell before I gave the command. I automatically turned my back to let him know he'd done something wrong. A woman in the audience asked, "I know you've told us this was a handling seminar rather than a training one, but can you tell me, was that a correction for this dog?" I acknowledged that it was, and threw the dumbbell again. This time, the dog waited for the command, making me proud - and relieved - it's never fun to have your dog show you up when giving a seminar. Aversives can be verbal or physical. As above, a physical aversive doesn't necessarily involve touching the dog. An aversive could also be withholding a food reward or toy. Most often in training, people use verbal aversives, the most common one being, "No!"

What's wrong with "No!" you may ask. Well, inherently there's nothing wrong with it. The problem is that most often it is said emotionally (NO!) rather than to give the information: that's not what I wanted. "No" is also over-used with most dogs, especially those you've raised from babyhood. Remember that T-shirt that says, "My name's Puppy No-No, What's yours:"? "No", like "good", is applied indiscriminately to all types of behaviors from housebreaking, to eating illicit items to failing to sit straight. I much prefer a quiet "Oops" or an "Uh-oh" to convey the aversive message to the dog. It's much easier to say these phrases quietly and calmly than it is to say "No" in a tone appropriate for training. Another option is "Wrong", again said calmly and quietly. My goal in using one of these terms is to let the dog know that what he's done is not what I want, and that we'll be making another attempt. I'm just trying to convey information; not punish or intimidate the dog, which can turn some dogs off and make them quit trying. My dogs also learn the phrase "Almost", which means they made a good attempt, but it wasn't quite up to my specifications. If we are working on a behavior I believe the dog knows, "Almost" and Uh-oh" both mean no treat will be forthcoming.

Do I ever say "No!" Of course I do, but I try really hard to save the big NO for major crimes like running off across the park to chase a squirrel or going up to a strange dog without permission. My hope is that when my dogs hear "NO!" they take it seriously and stop what they are doing.

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Obedience Balance the Beast

  • Random Thoughts
  • Words, Words, Words
  • STAY as Sweet as You Are
  • What to Wear, What to Wear
  • What's Sauce for the goose...
  • Say NO to "NO"
This is an excerpt from Melinda Wichmann's last BALANCE THE BEASTcolumn in the December 2008 issue of the TNT.  Melinda writes: I'd like to leave you with some random thoughts about obedience training, many of which I learned from Jamie (OTCH U-UD Ariel's Escape Through Time UDX3 VCD2 TD MX MXJ MXP MJP RE NF) who is a wonderful patient teacher. Think positively and surround yourself with friends who think positively. Communicate clearly with your dog.  Show him exactly what you want and help him achieve it.  Gray areas lead to confusion, doubt and inconsistent performances. Give your dog the benefit of the doubt. Be patient.  Training certain skills will take as long as it takes.  (You can speed up the process by being a clear, consistent communicator.) When at all possible, make training look like showing. Check your look in the mirror every now and then.  Is your dog's heel position correct?  How about your posture?  Do you like the reflection you see? How can you make it better? Build a strong foundation.  Do not hesitate to back up and strengthen it if needed. Training happens any time you are interacting with your dog, not only when he is wearing Read More
I had a request from a newcomer to provide some clarification of terms used commonly in obedience, so here goes. AKC OBEDIENCE TITLES What are the titles a dog can earn, and how do you know if a particular dog has a particular title?` Here is a list of obedience titles, which are placed after the dog’s name, except that championship titles and UKC titles (see below) are placed in front of the dog’s name. Companion Dog or CD Companion Dog Excellent or CDX Utility Dog or UD Utility Dog Excellent or UDX Obedience Trial Champion or OTCh Tracking Dog or TD (if a dog has both a UD and a TD, the abbreviation becomes UDT) Tracking Dog Excellent or TDX (if a dog has both a UD and a TDX, the abbreviation becomes UDTX) Variable Surface Tracker or VST Champion Tracker or CT Versatile Companion Dog or VCD 1 through 4 Versatile Companion Champion or VCCH National Obedience Champion or NOC, which can only be earned once a year, by winning the AKC National Obedience Invitational There is a whole series of breed-specific titles for performance events like herding, hunting, lure coursing, etc., as well as a lengthy list Read More
Teaching a reliable stay is the bedrock of most training programs, including obedience, agility, herding, hunting and more.  It's one of the first things most folks teach their dogs. It's not a particularly difficult or complex behavior. So why do so many dogs have so much trouble keeping their little fannies where they were left? I think it's because handlers are in way too big a hurry to get far away from Rover, so they skip all the little steps that produce secure stays. I also think this exercise is more difficult for dogs who lack confidence. If you have such a dog, you'd best plan on doubling or tripling the time it takes to teach the stay, or you'll battle this exercise forever. I'm not going to differentiate between sit, down and stand stays here. The principle is the same. I'm going to start by reminding you about one of the most critical factors in all competition obedience training: dogs do not automatically generalize learning. That means you mustn't assume that a dog that can stay reliably in your living room can repeat this behavior in your back yard, much less at a dog show. Stay must be taught Read More
Collars for the Ring The most recent revision of the Obedience Regulations completely liberalized our choice of collars, with a few exceptions. The collars specifically prohibited are pinch collars, electronic collars and, through a later communication from the AKC, head halters. This means that you can choose a buckle collar, a cloth collar with a plastic snap or a choke collar of any color or material. The restrictions still imposed are that the collar be "properly fitted" and that there be nothing hanging from it. The Regulations also state that "No visible means of identification...may be worn or displayed by anyone..." The reason for this restriction is that the whole process of judging is supposed to be objective, so the judge is not supposed to know the identity of any dog or handler. This is laughable, as anyone who shows long enough to meet the requirements to become a judge is going to know the top handlers and dogs in their area, but I guess the concept of objectivity is worthwhile. My point in mentioning this is to tell you that it's not a good idea to use a collar with your dog's name either printed on it or displayed Read More
As I watched one of my students vigorously stroking and patting her big Gordon Setter, it was clear to me that only one of them was enjoying this activity. The dog had his ears plastered back, his jaw set and was trying to pull his head away from her massaging fingers. I asked the woman if her dog usually came up to her and solicited petting at home. She thought for a moment and then said that it was rare. "So, " I asked, "why are you petting him right now?" She replied, "To let him know I'm pleased with him and that I love him." "Do you think he's enjoying it?" I asked. She looked down at the big guy, who was still trying to avoid her hands. "I never thought about it before," she said. I pointed out the things I had observed. She was flabbergasted and said, "I never noticed those things. Now what do I do?" That was a tough question. She was trying to motivate her dog, but all she was really doing was annoying him. It had not occurred to her to observe her dog's response to stroking and handling, and to see that while Read More
I've said it here before: specific words don't really matter in dog training because dogs don't speak English (or French, or Swahili or any other human language).  Dogs learn to associate certain sounds with certain actions for which they've been rewarded or punished. For example, after a number of repetitions, Rover figures out that when his human makes the sound "sit", he (Rover) has better get his fanny on the floor. How many repetitions it will take depends on a number of factors, including the way the connection of the sound and the behavior is made by the two-legged member of the team, how innately rewarding the behavior is to the dog, how bright and how willing the individual dog is, how persistent the human is, and more. This is pretty common sense stuff, but many people still persist in believing that there is some kind of magic in finding just the right word that will make Rover perform. And if that magic word doesn't work, these folks think, it's because they didn't say it loud enough. Or often enough. Which nonsense brings me to this topic, the judicious use of words. I'm not a clicker trainer, but I certainly Read More
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