How Words Affect Behavior

Have you ever stopped to think about how difficult it must be to be a dog (or other animal) living with humans in dog training, our verbal cues and voice intonations affect our dog's success.many times larger than him who speaks a completely unknown language, who has rules that often times are secret until you do something to break them, and who expects you to easily understand what it is they want you to do at any given moment?

Oh my, we need to give our pets a whole lot more understanding and respect!

Think about it for a minute, just how complicated we make learning and succeeding with us. Do you use the word ‘down’ to indicate that you want your dog to lay down, and also, in the heat of a moment, yell ‘down!’ to indicate you want your dog to go from jumping on you to having all four paws on the ground? Do you ever yell ‘no!’ to your dog but your dog has no idea what he should do instead? How many different ways do you call your dog to come, in addition to the word you had actually practiced teaching? (I bet you don’t even know an exact number for that last question.)

One more way to help your pet learn (and help you be a more effective teacher) is to keep track of your cues – verbal and nonverbal – and make sure that you are using distinctively different cues for different behaviors. (I wrote more about teaching cues in this blog post.)

Here is another example to give you thought. I have heard people say ‘no bite’ when their dog goes to take a treat from their hand with too much pressure or ‘no jump’ when their dog’s two front paws leave the ground to land on an incoming human.

There are a number of problems with this. Firstly, this is assuming that your dog understands what the words ‘bite’ and ‘jump’ mean…and actually, if your dog had been taught by you what those cues meant, logically then, if you used those cues AFTER another word, then, wouldn’t your dog DO the behavior of jump or bite since it was cued by you?  The other thing here is that, more than likely, in these situations, your voice may be raised and your body language may be doing more to heighten your dog’s arousal which could result in your dog doing more of the behaviors you do not like.

Here is another tendency of humans. When frustration sets in as ears develop selective listening, it is the nature of many of us to get louder and more persistent with our voices. I have seen it happen time and again. Dog handlers ask their dog to come or to sit, and if the behavior is not done, the handler repeats words over and over, with more and more velocity.

And yet, another complication is the fact that we convey even more information by the tone of our voice.

Think about your own self and the difference between your emotional and physiological response to hearing ‘come here!’ in how a deep throated, loud tone from a face with tense muscles vs a high-pitched tone from a smiling face. In training, it is important to separate yourself from your emotions and use verbal tones to elicit the behavior from your pet that you want to see.

Remember, when your dog is not doing what you want it to do, it is not behaving to purposefully get under your skin. Your dog is simply doing what works for him to get something it values. In that moment, your dog is telling you the value is not associated with you. Additionally, as your dog’s teacher, if your dog is not doing what you want, ask yourself how well YOU have taught him with consistency and lots of positive practice in varying situations. It is not the cue that determines the future rate of behaviors. It is the reinforcement that comes after behaviors. Cues are simply green lights that tell learners that opportunity for good things is NOW.

Can I be of more help to you and your pet? Please contact me! 

Your Role In Training Success

When you ask your dog to sit or lay down, does it ever immediately pop back up into a stand instead of stay in position? And, what happens when you are out for a walk and stop to talk to someone? Does your dog go exploring and begin to pull on the leash when you’d like it to simply sit by your side?

choices in dog trainingIt is easy to get frustrated when your dog does not do what you want, but we have to remember, pets are not mind readers. If we do not teach them what it is we want them to do in any given situation, they are likely to come up with their own choice that is based upon where the value is for them. Anytime they are doing something, they are doing what works for them in the moment to get something of value or avoid something aversive.

So, let’s talk about several points here as it relates to the human factor in training.

Your Role in Paying Attention

People tend to think about focus as it relates to their students. It is one of the reasons why short training sessions are best and why you are helping your pet to succeed when you train in an environment with limited distractions, or a distraction level in which your animal is still motivated and able to maintain its attention on the lesson at hand.

But you should not leave yourself out of this consideration. Anytime you are training, you need to be completely attentive to your student and your lesson. If a distraction occurs during training (such as the phone ringing or your wanting to talk to someone), take a pause. If you are just beginning to teach stay and your dog doesn’t yet understand the concept, release your dog before turning your attention to something else so you do not set it up for failure.


Remember, it is very difficult for an animal who doesn’t speak human to understand what we want them to do. When teaching, remember clear two-way communication is so important. Teach with small steps and great reinforcement for good choices. But also, remember that, if in ‘your mind’ you would like for your dog to sit at your side when you talk to someone while on a walk…that sitting by your side is a behavior YOU need to teach your dog, and reinforce it in that situation. Just as explained above, your focus needs to be on your dog’s behavior in that moment.

Realistic Expectations

If your pet continues to make unwanted choices, or if you ask your pet to do a behavior multiple times and your pet does something else, know that it is not because your pet is being dumb or obstinate. Instead, see it as a case of your student telling you it either needs much more positive practice of learning the behavior, or it is not motivated to stay focused in that moment. This is a time for you as the teacher to pause or stop the training and review what you need to change to help you both succeed the next time.

Watch what you are reinforcing

A common error I see among dog handlers is when their dog’s wanted behavior gets ignored and only its unwanted behavior gets attention. I have seen dogs sitting at their owners side quietly and getting zero reinforcement until the dog gets up and barks, at which point, the owner may yell (giving attention) and the dog gets self reinforcement in terms of adrenal and excitement. The owner may jerk the leash to get the dog to sit down but if the strength of the reinforcer overpowers the aversiveness of the stimulus, the pet will continue to choose to get up and bark. A better alternative is to concentrate on catching the wanted behavior and giving that behavior a lot of reinforcement.

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A Dog Training Tip: Practice Consistency

Sam wanted to pop in again. He has a feeling many of his friends are just as confused. It is important to remember, we have a lot to do with the success of our pets. If we don’t provide clear criteria and cues on what behaviors we want to see (and reinforcement for those behaviors), it is awfully difficult for them to understand what behaviors we want to see – and to understand the meaning of our cues. #dogtrainingtips

dog training tip on consistency

Dog Training Tips: A Recipe of Good Training Habits

I’ve written about so many topics relating to strengthening your ability to teach and your dog’s ability to learn. I got to thinking, if I were to create a recipe of good habits for building success in the classroom (which, by the way, is anywhere where you happen to be teaching) what would be the ingredients?10-17 recipe

Here are my top picks:

Practice actively looking for your dog’s genius side. It is in there, trust me. Every waking moment of everyday your dog is responding to stimulus in his environment and his repeated behaviors are the ones that get him something of value. By paying attention to catching those behaviors you want to see, you will see more of those behaviors.

Practice clarity and consistency. Remember, as your dog’s teacher his ability to learn has a lot to do with your ability to provide him with clear feedback on your expectations. Know what you are looking for and do not waiver (although when you are shaping behavior, know that you may need to adjust the steps in getting there depending on how your dog learns).

Practicing learning and paying attention to what is on ‘your dog’s’ List of Awesomeness. Remember, when you train using positive reinforcement the student always gets to choose where the value is for him. If you want to build value for a behavior, teach your student to associate that behavior with a valued consequence.

Practice checking your serious side at the door. When you and your dog have fun together, it makes teaching so much easier. Think about training like a game and it will put you in a different frame of mind. Teach your dog by building joy into the lesson. You will get so much more focus from your student, who won’t even realize he is in class!

Practice being open to feedback. If your student is not getting the lesson plan, that is feedback to you that you need to alter in some way. Maybe you are asking for too big of steps, are not having a high enough value reinforce, are not clear in your criteria, are working amidst too many distractions. There are a number of reasons your dog is giving you that feedback. Be open to it and flexible to adapt.

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