I was observing a client the other day showing me how she asks her dog to come. “Fido (not his real name), Fido, Fido,” she shouted as her dog looked the other direction, sniffed something on the ground, and then decided to return to her.
Another time I was watching a man demonstrate loose leash walking with his dog, and every step of the way from point A to point B, the man was looking down at his dog saying, “good Fido, good Fido, good Fido.”
I’ve written before about how our words affect our pet’s behavior. I want to take a different look at how our talking affects our effectiveness in dog training.
As humans, we are such verbal communicators. As a member of Toastmasters, someone whose other careers have been in journalism and public relations, and someone very sensitive to others’ feelings, I am fully aware of how important my speech is when it comes to influencing others. However, there are times, even between people, when too much talking is well, too much communication.
Training our dogs is one of those times.
Think about your own self. We think about someone who relentlessly keeps asking us to do something over and over and over again as a ‘nag’, and many of us have a tendency to tune out those requests over time. Those requests just come to be background noise. Similarly, hearing ‘good job’ over and over and over again has a tendency to lower the value of that praise over time – especially since it is linked to any specific behavior on your part.
And, another thing to give you thought is how that ‘background noise’ can actually even be a distraction during the learning process. When teaching new behaviors, it is recommended that you begin in an environment with minimal distractions because it is really challenging to focus when there are other things going on around you. This is why, in a dance class, there is no music while you are being taught the steps and why, libraries are meant to be quiet places for reading.
When it comes to teaching behaviors, there are a lot of factors that affect your dog training success. Remember, dogs speak an entirely different language than we do which makes learning from us that much more complicated so the more we can do to make the lesson clear and understandable, the greater the likelihood that our pets will be motivated to learn – and learn what we are intending to teach.
Here are a few things to keep in mind with regard to talking during dog training.
From a cue perspective, teach the behavior first before adding the cue, then make sure you are using a distinctive sound – one that will cut through the background clutter, and only say it once. If your dog does not do the specific behavior you are looking for after several tries of saying the cue, then it is time to stop and re-evaluate the lesson plan. It very well could be that you have inadvertently been using more than one cue for any one behavior, like bending over, raising your hand AND saying sit when you want your dog to sit. That is one of many ways training effectiveness can break down.
From a consequence perspective, there are two behavior terms to be familiar with. Contiguity refers to the closeness in time between the behavior and its consequence while contingency refers to the degree of correlation between the behavior and its consequence (*if* I do this behavior, *the* this is the consequence that will follow). The less time there is between the behavior and its consequence, the quicker and easier the animal can build that relationship.
When you keep repeating ‘good job’ over and over, it really muddies the water for the learner to get what exact behavior is earning the ‘good job’. (And, your words ‘good job’ should be paired with other positive reinforcement; however, you are better using a short distinct marker – a topic for another discussion.)