Friday, June 30, 2017

It's All Greek to Me!

On a 100+ degree evening in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, I was sitting on a bench outside a restaurant with a male colleague waiting for our ride back to the U.S. Embassy Compound. I was appropriately covered head to toe in a black abaya complete with a head scarf to cover my hair. An elderly Saudi woman walked up to us and started yelling in Arabic and waving her finger at us in a scolding manner. Although I didn't understand a word, her message was pretty clear...women are not supposed to sit next men on a bench in public...or at least that's what I figured she was trying to communicate.

Let's face it. We all speak to our dogs and assume they understand or should understand our every word. Should they? Do they? In fact, they are more likely learning to understand us by responding to our tone, movement, intent, mood, and body language than the words we speak ~ just as I was essentially understanding the Saudi woman who was yelling at me. Certainly, if I had understood her, she would not have had to continue her rant toward me. Also, her attitude did not make me feel particularly warm or friendly toward her. When we bring a new dog into our home, they are in very much the same position of understanding as I was on that bench in Riyadh.

How many times have you heard someone say, "Sit. Sit. Come on now. I said sit. Sit for Mommy. Be a good little boy. Sit. Sit. Sit!" This scenario also usually includes increased frustration and impatience on the part of the human, elevated verbal tone and volume, and physical cuing and/or touch to get the desired response. In situations like this, the dog is usually either completely ignoring their person, avoiding them, or giving them a blank and confused stare. Of course, this scenario is somewhat exaggerated to get the point across but I think everyone has seen something similar at one time or another. So often, our dogs are probably hearing our words like the droning, murmuring, unintelligible voices of the adults portrayed in Charlie Brown cartoons. Worse yet, they may also be perceiving us as increasingly volatile angry beings to be avoided.

Another source of confusing communication with our dogs is when we use one word to mean several things. For example "down." Often times people use "down" to get the dog to lay in the down position, to get the dog off of a counter top, AND to get the dog to not jump on someone. Using one word for three different situations and desired behaviors does not give your dog a clear picture of the meaning of "down." In this situation, using "down" for the down position, "off" to get your dog off of a counter top, and "no jump" to get your dog off of people is a clearer option.

In reality, learning the meaning of each and every word/command that we use with our dogs takes repetition, time, patience, and consistency in the use of our words. When first teaching our dogs what our words and commands mean, it is best to speak single words rather than sentences and reward the dog when it responds correctly to each individual word or command. Once the dog knows each command individually and can generalize that command across location, position, distance, and context, we can start to chain several commands together such as "come, front, sit, and finish" before rewarding. 

I also like to teach what I refer to as "hard commands" and "soft commands." When giving a "hard command," I train for, expect, and will reinforce a fast and precise response. A recall "here" command (actually "hier" in German/Dutch for me) is an example of a "hard command." I want the response to be fast and direct. "Soft commands" on the other hand, are looser and considered more of a suggestion, something like "this way" or "over here." Because of my background with working K9s, my "hard commands" are most often used when working and given in a foreign language such as German or Dutch. I use the foreign commands in large part to keep myself from speaking in sentences and because the foreign language words stand out from the every day language my dogs hear. 

So, here is a list of some of the everyday words (in no particular order) with their meanings that I like to use to communicate with my dogs. Where possible, for the purpose of this list, I've used the English translation rather than the German/Dutch words that I use when working in the field:
  • Yes! - Perfect/Reward is imminent (a positive precisely timed marker)
  • Dog's Name - Respond with some attention
  • Good - Great job. Keep doing what you are doing (used to add duration)
  • Ready? - Preparatory word to acknowledge attention
  • Sit - Sit
  • Down - Go into a down position with butt and elbows on the ground
  • Stand - Stand up on all 4
  • Pick a hip - Go into a relaxed down position with weight on one hip
  • All the way - Lay on your side for health examination
  • Stay - Stay until I come back to release may be a while
  • Wait - Hold your position, I will release you soon (used at doorways, into/out of car)
  • Release - Free dog! Can leave bed/car/door/whatever
  • Look - Give me eye contact and hold it
  • Leave it - Don't touch
  • Be nice - Behave nicely with other dogs when greeting/don't get too rough
  • Say hi - Greet a person politely/they are okay
  • Uh Uh or Nope - Not what I want                                                                                                 (a negative marker used as information not scolding or punishment)
  • Inside - Go into the house/building
  • Outside - Go out of the house/building
  • Under - Crawl under something
  • Spring - Jump over something
  • Hup - Jump onto something
  • Through - Go through a tunnel
  • Mark - Focus attention in the direction I point (hand open palm next to face)
  • Run Out - Run fast and straight in the direction of the Mark
  • Over - Move in the direction of my arm movement to left or right in a straight line
  • Tuck in - Tuck under a table or airline seat
  • Speak - Bark
  • Quiet - Stop barking
  • Treat - Expect a treat just because
  • Let's go for a walk - Head to door and wait for leash
  • Kennel - Go into the large outdoor kennel
  • Load up - Head to car and hop up into car crate
  • Crate - Go into the crate
  • On your bed - Go lie down on your bed (chained response of Bed + Down)
  • Place - Lie down between my legs (chain of the between the my legs position + Down)
  • With me - Change of direction when loose leash walking
  • Walk nicely - Maintain loose leash casual walking
  • Heel - Precision attention heel (combination position of dog's shoulder to my knee + Look)
  • Push - Push your nose into my hand while walking next to me
  • Swing - Flip around to my right side and heel while walking backwards
  • Finish - Go from Front position to Heel position sit
  • Here - Come immediately and fast
  • This way - A suggestion to follow generally when off leash hiking
  • Off - Get off of furniture/counters
  • No jump - Don't jump on people
  • Easy - Take toys/treats softly
  • Kisses only - Lick/no teeth
  • Back - Back up
  • Out - Leave the area
  • Look out - Get out of the way of a moving mower/wheel barrow/other
  • Car - A car is coming so go to the side of the road out of the way
  • No cat! - Leave the kitty alone
  • Potty/Take a break - Do #1
  • Big potty - Do #2
  • Let me help you - Relax so I can give first aid/meds
  • Settle - Quit running around and relax
  • Thank you - To stop barking at the window, I've got it covered
  • Hey/Enough -To break fixation/rough play
  • Whistle (Fox 40) - Drop everything and haul asap back to me
  • Whistle (human) - Used to get attention/change of direction/follow when I am in the field
  • Find it - Hunt out target odor
  • Another - Search again for more target odor
  • Show me - Take me to the find and point to it with your nose
  • Closer - Get closer with nose to target odor (used if the dog is fringing)
  • Slow - Slow down to hunt deeply in tighter grid for smaller sources
  • Careful - Slow down and pay attention when moving through dangerous area
  • Suche - German for Search - Follow the trail or track
  • Bring - Retrieve an object to me
  • Hold it - Hold the object in your mouth steady without chewing
  • Touch - Put your feet on a designated touch pad or object 
  • Drink - Drink on command from dish or stream (important when out working)
  • Swim - Enter the water and cool off (also important when out working)
  • Attack - Go bite the decoy
  • Pass Auf - Watch the decoy
  • Guard - Stay with the decoy, watch, and re-attack if he runs.
  • Out - Give/Release the object to me
  • No - Don't do what you are doing (usually followed by a direction to do something else.)
  • Uh oh - When I find something ripped up like a bed or other mess.
  • It's okay - When they need some comfort, not feeling well, or getting picked on
  • Where's your toy? - Find a toy/ball that we have been playing with
  • Head down - From down position, hold head down on paws.
  • Spin - Do a 360 degree spin in front of me
  • Let's feed the horses - Act like an idiot and charge out to the barn
  • Breakfast - After feeding the horses, run back to the house for breakfast
  • Suppertime - After feeding the horses, run back to the house for supper
  • Best dog in the world!!! - This one comes with tons of praise!!
  • My perfect boy - used as much as possible when snuggling on the couch
As you can see, without even realizing it, we ask our dogs to understand many words. If we start chaining those words together too soon and asking for finished behaviors, it stands to reason our dogs will get confused. The more consistent and clear we can be with the words we use, the less conflicted and more likely our dogs will be to respond quickly and correctly to our commands.

But, you ask, "How do I teach each word and behavior clearly?" I'll leave that topic for another blog. 


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