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How to Establish Meaningful Communication (Part 1)

To quote a famous movie line from Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is failure to communicate”. As a professional dog trainer people come to me for help training their dogs. What I find most often is that people bring a pet into their home without a plan of action. It’s not that we plan to fail, but we fail to plan. We often time bring our new puppy into our home and begin talking to them as if they understand the definitions of our words. Unfortunately, dogs cannot understand the definitions of our words. They only associate the sound of the words with an environmental stimuli or they understand cause and effects.

In this segment of training tips, I would like to discuss how to establish a meaningful vocabulary in order to communicate with your dog. Let’s start with the premise that dogs learn through cause and effect in their environment. Generally, dogs want their environment to be as pleasant as possible. Based on these principals we can develop a meaningful vocabulary to communicate with our dogs which behaviors are approved and which behaviors are non-approved.

I will start this exercise by showing you how to establish marker words and place value to these words. We will develop a word to signal that the behavior is approved or that a change of behavior is necessary.

The first step is to pick a word or sound and attach a resource to it. For our purposes we will use the word ‘yes’. We will also use a treat or lure as a resource. This will act as a positive reinforcer. Not all dogs are food motivated, so you may need another form of reward. To start, have the dog in position in front or beside you. They can stand or sit; it doesn’t really make a difference. We are not teaching them a command yet. When your dog is focusing on you, immediately say ‘yes’, then offer the treat or reward. When using a treat be sure to use only small portions; a small kibble or pinch of string cheese usually works. There should be approximately a 1 second delay between the ‘yes’ and the delivery of the treat. Repeat this 10 to 12 times per session for a few days. You should begin to see your dog look for the treat when you say ‘yes’ even when they become distracted.

Now we have associated the word ‘yes’ with a positive resource or something good. For the purpose of how to use the marker word ‘yes’ to communicate that the dog has performed an approved behavior, we will use pulling on a leash while walking to demonstrate a change in behavior and how to mark that change.

You will need a 6-foot leash, flat buckle collar, Martingale collar or choke chain. You will also need an ample supply of treats. Place the collar and leash on your dog. You will want to be in a room with minimal distractions. When your dog ventures out away from you, place a light tension on the leash without saying anything. When your dog turns back toward you and the tension on your leash is released by the dog’s movement say ‘yes’, wait 1 second then reward the dog. Repeat this procedure multiple times per session. Gradually increasing distractions that encourages your dog to pull on the leash. You should begin to see your dog turn back towards you faster than before.

Now you are ready to take a walk outside with heavier distractions like other dogs, cats, or squirrels. When your dog encounters a distraction or begins to pull, stop and place tension on the leash horizontally towards you. When your dog turns back toward you, as soon as the leash becomes slack say the work ‘yes’ and give them the treat or reward. Repeat this over the course of several days. Once your dog begins to turn back toward you in order to release the pressure and access the reward, they are beginning to understand.

Now we are ready to introduce a marker word or cue for unapproved behavior. In this case it will be the pulling on the leash. We will use the word ‘no’ as our marker word and a quick leash pop or pressure as a negative reinforcer. Take your dog on a leash walk, when they encounter a mild distraction and begin to pull on the leash say the word ‘no’. Then slack off the leash and give a quick pop or jerk (not too aggressively however, we are simply trying to break the dog’s focus). The dog should turn toward you and as they do say ‘yes’, praise and reward them. Repeat this step multiple times per session. Over the next few days, you should see your dog begin to respond with just the word ‘no’. Please note that you will have to continue to reinforce the word ‘no’ with a negative reinforcer for several weeks in order to establish the new behavior of not pulling.

I believe that using this method to establish a vocabulary that is meaningful to your dog will help you greatly. Use simple communication to teach your dog to navigate life and interactions in our human world. We all need guidance and a clear understanding of what is expected of us. These tools will help you provide guidance and expectations for your 4-legged friend.

Happy Tails

Jeff Stoneman


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