We started teaching our dog some tricks. With each new trick, we are thinking of clever and fun commands to use. Are some commands better than others?
In the science of animal training, a command is called a cue. A cue is information, telling the animal what they ought to do. These can be words, gestures, tactile input such as touch or even location.
When teaching cues, we are teaching dogs to understand human communication. Owners who limit their dog’s learning to core skills such as sit, stay, come and heel create a limited skill set. There aren’t very many words to learn.
Once owners move toward tricks and dog sports, dogs need to comprehend a larger vocabulary. There comes a point where new cues are somewhat similar to old ones. The more similar two cues are, the more difficult it is for the dog to differentiate them.
It’s not unlike a toddler who sees an animal. They learn the animal is called a dog. Later, when they see a cat, they invariably call it a dog. More learning is required to distinguish between the two animals, both of which have four legs and fur. It takes even greater learning to distinguish between a Yellow Labrador and a Golden Retriever. Discriminating finer differences is a sign of expertise.
Keep cues as unique as possible for ease of learning. For example, “sit pretty” is quite different from “roll over.” This makes it easier for the dog to tell them apart.
Most owners who teach many skills will invariably reach a point where similar cues can no longer be avoided. Keep track of various cues in a journal to watch for potential problems. Dogs can absolutely learn these more complex differences. As with people, it just takes a little more practice and learning.
Remember that hand signals are prone to the same issues. Strive for clarity. When two things are similar, take a little extra time to explain the difference to the dog. It takes effort to teach a dog that sit is different from quit or spit.
We are starting training classes with our puppy. The instructions say to bring “good treats and toys.” What sort of rewards should I use to train my dog?
The type of reward, or reinforcement, an owner chooses will vary. It can depend on the situation, the skill being taught and the individual dog. The short answer is that owners should choose the optimal level of reinforcement.
This means that each dog has a paycheque, a reward, that they will enthusiastically work for that suits them best. It’s like Goldilocks. The value should be not too high, not too low, but just right.
Rewards that are too low in value obviously will fail to motivate a dog to work. It would be like working for pennies.
Too high can also be detrimental. That would be like answering a million-dollar question. The pressure to be correct combined with the desire to achieve such a massive payout increases arousal to the point where we make ludicrous mistakes. High value rewards are typically reserved for recalls and dealing with fear or aggression. They are a different style of exercise that requires large pay.
In the middle is a motivating level of pay where attention and focus is high. This will likely vary a bit based on the situation. Do slowly incorporate treats to prevent stomach upset in dogs new to training. Remember that your dog will smell the treats brought by others into class. What you offer should be valuable enough to compete with that added distraction.
Yvette Van Veen is an animal behaviour consultant. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org .