MAKE A LIST (see Suggestions for Dog Commands & Signals)
Have you ever sat down and made a list of all the commands and body signals you have taught your dog to respond to? It is quite an eye opener, I can tell you! It is also a very useful exercise, as it helps us focus on all the different signals that we expect our dogs to recognise and understand. If the list seems muddled and unclear to us, just imagine how confusing these commands must be to our dogs!
The examples given in the Suggestions are not a definitive guide to what commands, signals and exercises should be taught to all dogs. The list is just an example of one particular dog and is used to highlight where misunderstandings and inconsistency can confuse a dog. Let's look at some of the examples in detail to help us clarify when we should use them.
"STAY" and "WAIT"
Many handlers are confused about when to use "Stay" and "Wait". Their confusion and inconsistency of how and when they use these commands causes the dog to become anxious and more likely to break these two commands, as the end of the exercise is unclear to them - when should they move?
If the dog is taught never to move from a "Stay" until the handler has returned to its side and is given a release command, it will relax and wait. Because the handler has been consistent, the dog builds up trust in the handler that he will always return and reward it for staying still. The dog learns to ignore whatever the handler is doing, and any distractions, and to wait until he returns to its side. It is then released and rewarded (usually with its favourite game or high value life reward such as going for a walk, doing an agility run, playing with the other dogs etc). If it fails to stay it is not given these rewards. The dog then chooses to use its self-control and in return be rewarded for doing so.
It must be emphasised that young dogs, and dogs showing signs of stress are incapable of doing prolonged "Waits" or "Stays". They do not have the mental capacity to concentrate for very long and need to build up their powers of concentration by doing very short sessions (such as a few seconds) and then building up the time, very slowly and gradually as the dog learns to control its impulses. It is common for dogs to not be able to concentrate properly on doing these static exercises in self-control until they are well over the age of 12-18 months old. Do not expect too much from your young dog.
"Wait" means - "watch me closely, I will give you another command soon and you will be asked to do something" (eg move from a sit to a down; return to its owner; fetch a toy; begin an agility run; be allowed to eat from its bowl etc). The dog will be alert and ready to perform the next command. Therefore, the handler must be careful not to move their body accidentally in such a way that the dog interprets it as a signal to move from the Wait, nor say a word that sounds like a command to the dog. This is why it is important to teach the dog to work to clear obvious signals and commands that the dog will not confuse with anything else you may be doing while it is in a Wait.
Another command that often confuses dogs is "Down". Handlers usually use it to mean "lie flat on the ground", but they can also say it to stop a dog jumping up or get it off the furniture. By having different commands for each instance (eg "Flat" for lying down; "Off" for stop jumping up, put all four paws on the floor; and "Get Down" for get off the furniture) the dog is far more likely to understand what is expected.
When do you use your dog's name? Are you consistent and only use it to catch your dog's attention and give you eye contact before you give the next command? Or do you use its name in different situations and then wonder why the dog seems to be ignoring you (eg name= come to me; or used to warn the dog; or to tell it you are angry; or expect the dog to come to you etc)? It is well worth thinking about.
What about the command "Right"? Is it a directional command to your dog or do you use it to tell the dog it is correct?
(see also It All Comes Down to the Fine Tones!)
Be careful NOT to use similar sounding words as commands, especially if they sound like the dog's name."Go" and "No" sound very similar, as does the name "Jo" or any other name ending in "O".
Also be aware of the tone of your voice when you give a command - keep it clear, happy and free from stress. Negative emotions (such as anxiety, stress, frustration, fear or nervousness) are easily transferred to dogs. They become apprehensive and nervous as they do not understand why their handlers are showing these emotions. Many dogs misinterpret the situation and believe they are the cause for the handler's anxiety, and consequently they either refuse to do the exercise, run off, or become too stressed to continue the session.
On the other hand, if the handler shows positive emotions (such as confidence, relaxation, and is unfazed by what is going on around them) the dog also relaxes and feels confident of its surroundings and what it is doing. A classic example of this is dogs that don't come back when called - the dogs can hear the anxiety and frustration in their owner's voices and soon associate the tone with having their lead put on. Their fun will be over and there is no reward. By training a dog to associate the sound of a dog whistle with treats, fun games with its owner, etc, the dog will not be affected by the changes in its owners voice when they are worried, angry etc, and will come when called.
Men with deep voices often have difficulty giving verbal commands to their dog, especially submissive animals. These nervous dogs misinterpret the situation by associating the deep/loud command with that of being told off. To combat this situation, these men should either raise the tonal register of their voices, whisper, use a dog whistle, or use body signals wherever possible instead.
MOVEMENT AND SIGNALS
With regard to body signals, your dog can easily misinterpret these - especially herding breeds that are very body/movement sensitive. For example, keep your arms still and your hands clasped in front of you as you walk away from your dog in a "Wait". The dog will then be more aware of the movement of your arms when you signal it to come. Make sure you do not turn away from your dog when giving visual signals, it won't be able to see them clearly and will be unsure of what you want it to do.
Dogs can also be confused by the different tones of voice and body signals of other members of your family. Your list will make it easier for everyone in the household to become consistent with the commands and signals they use - resulting in a happier, trusting and less confused dog who is more likely to do as it's told!
Remember, whether they are vocal commands or visual ones - BE CONSISTENT. Then your dog has a better opportunity of being consistent as well.
This human example may give you an insight into how difficult it is for a dog to understand human/canine communication: -
You have suddenly been uprooted from your normal environment and been lodged with a big family in a far off foreign country. Not only do you not understand their language, you are completely confused by the mannerisms and customs they display. No one smiles, laughs, shouts or cries - you find it impossible to communicate with anyone. You desperately want to please them and make friends but do not know how to go about it.
Each day one of the family brings you a small pot and places it on the table in front of you. You look inside it but it is full of stones. You do not understand what it means. One day you accidentally knock the pot over and quickly reach to pick it up and replace it where it was before. You expect to be told off for knocking the pot over but realise that everyone is looking at you and waving their hands in the air. You have never seen them do this before. Are they communicating with you? Are they showing anger or another emotion?
You decide to experiment by knocking the pot over again. There is no response from the family.
However, as soon as you reach to pick it up they begin to watch you carefully and wave their hands in the air as soon as you touch the pot. It becomes obvious that they want you to touch the pot. Why?
You decide to experiment and pick up the pot. This makes them wave their hands up and down slowly. Is this a good or bad sign?
You look inside the pot and find a small flute made out of wood in the bottom. You never realised it was there until now.
Suddenly you have a flash of inspiration. You tip the flute out of the pot and begin to play it. The family wave their hands frantically in the air and begin to dance.
You realise that you have been able to communicate with them by watching their response very carefully, experimenting to try and get a reaction, and interpreting these reactions to find out whether they are pleased or not.
This is exactly what dogs do - they watch for a response from the human. If the human reacts (such as giving the dog attention) it becomes a strong reward for the dog as it wants to interact with the humans in its pack - the dog will then repeat the behaviour as it had a response before (see Memory).
However, be careful of accidentally rewarding behaviour that you do not want. It is very difficult for humans to understand that telling a dog off (whatever tone is used) is often perceived by the dog as a very high reward. Here is an example -
Your dog jumps on to your furniture.
You look at the dog, tell it off and try to grab it and pull it off the furniture.
The dog regards your attention (ie. eye contact and you speaking to it) as very rewarding because you are noticing it rather than carrying on with your daily chores or watching the television or talking to other people, etc. It will then start to jump on to the furniture whenever it wants your attention as this usually makes you look and speak to it - the behaviour is rewarding (see Life Rewards).
The correct way to overcome this problem is to CONSISTENTLY ignore the dog when it goes on the furniture (silently walking out of the room without looking at the dog and shutting the door so that the dog cannot follow you, is particularly effective), while making a point of giving the dog plenty of love and attention when its feet are on the floor and it is being "good".
Some dogs, when they are being told off and glared at, feel threatened or challenged when humans try to grab the collar and pull them off the furniture. They will probably display strong calming signals in order to diffuse the situation and avoid confrontation. If you ignore these signals and make the dog feel more threatened or challenged the dog may decide that the only option left to it is to growl, snap or even resort to biting you. In these situations dogs soon realise that they have the "upper hand" and that we cannot control the situation by getting the dog off the furniture.
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