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! 

Transferring Cues in Dog Training

There are times when you would like to teach a new cue for a particular behavior. Maybe you want to add a verbal cue to a hand signal or vice versa. Transferring cues in dog training really is not that difficult to do. I’ll explain below. First, I want to remind you about some cue basics.

Cues for behaviors. What are they?

teaching and transferring cues in dog trainingScientifically speaking, a cue is simply a stimulus that elicits a behavior. Discrimination is the tendency for learned behavior to occur in one situation but not in other situations. (Learning & Behavior, Paul Chance) Therefore, a change in the environment known as a discriminative stimulus becomes a cue for that behavior to be set into motion.

It is important to remember that it is the consequences of that behavior, positive or negative, that determine the future probability of that behavior occurring. The cue is simply an indicator to the learner that that window of time for that consequence to happen is now.

In other words, the cue is like a green light that tells the animal NOW is the time to do something in order to get something it values or move away from something it wants to avoid.

Discriminitive (environmental) cues are learned all the time from our pets. They can learn that the doorbell is a cue for jumping and barking to get fun humans to walk through. They learn that a human sitting at the table is a cue for pawing that human to get attention or a piece of food. They can also learn that proximity to another dog is a cue to move away to avoid the potential of a negative past consequence (maybe a dog growled or jumped on it, or the dog was yanked on its collar by its owner).

They can also learn that your word ‘sit’ or your hand signal is a cue for sitting to get great things to happen. Or any number of cues we teach them through training. Here is the tricky part…our pets are ALWAYS watching us. And they REALLY pay attention to our body language. That being said, they can easily pick up on our slight movement that we don’t even realize we are doing as another cue for a behavior such as, we may lean as we say a word or we may look in a direction. This is actually referred to as ‘double cuing’ and it is SO easy to do. The problem is that, when two cues are taught simultaneously, one has greater strength and one of those cues will likely not be an effective communication too.

Teaching one cue at a time is the most effective, however, you can still have different cues for the same behavior. They should just be taught separately for greatest understanding and retention by the learner. Transfering that meaning from one cue to another is not that difficult. I’ll explain below.

First, here is a recap of qualities of effective cues (in positive training):

  1. They are simple, unique and consistent.
  2. You should say the cue only once.
  3. Only behaviors that are cued will receive reinforcement (from you)

Transferring Cues

How do you create new cues for the same behavior?

Firstly, come up with a second cue that is easily decipherable from the original cue (and different from cues for other learned behaviors). As an example, if you have taught your dog to hand target with a cue of an extended hand and open palm, then you would not want to teach an open palm as a cue for standing as well.

Once you have decided on your new cue, here are the basic steps for teaching it.

  1. Give the new cue.
  2. Then give the old cue.
  3. Then, when your dog does the behavior, mark it and reinforce it as you have in the past.

Do this for two or three sessions of ten to twenty reps each. Then, begin to pause for a moment in between the new and old cue. Your dog will likely do the behavior as it learns (from past experience) that the new cue predicts the new cue. If it does the behavior, immediately mark and reinforce it.  Soon you will be using the new cue only.

Note that if your dog does not do the behavior when only given the new cue, this is feedback that you need more positive practice in building that association between the new and old cues (and the reinforcement).

You will need to “proof” the new cue for all relevant aspects of fluency:  distraction, distance, duration, fluency, speed, precision, and the ultimate goal – stimulus control.  The good news is that if your original cue was well-proofed to fluency, the process of proofing the new cue will be significantly faster the second time around.

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