Have you ever been to a foreign country or with a group of individuals who speak a different dialect than you? It can be overwhelming trying to understand what others are saying when you don’t know what they are saying (especially if you’re trying to order food). Your heart rate can increase, you look around and take in the body language to try and interpret the best you can so that you can give the appropriate response. I personally felt this when traveling to Spain a few years ago. I noticed how easy it was to tune out other people communicating in Spanish, I found myself chucking as I realized this must be similar to what dogs experience when interacting with us on the daily.
Dogs tune us out the majority of the day as they hang around us as we go about our business talking to them and to others, yet many humans expect that their dog understand the words right from the get go that come out of our mouth when they are directed at them. Dogs do not naturally speak English (or Spanish, French, German, etc…), communicating to your dog should start from the ground up by creating a marker system that you both understand. We will address what we use at KeenDog, but feel free to use whatever works best for you and comes naturally. The most important thing is that you have a terminal marker (terminates the behavior and allows your dog to access the reward in an aroused manner, we use a different one for a toy and food), a duration marker (keep doing the behavior they are doing, you come to them with a reward), an incorrect marker (the dog offered up the wrong behavior), a non-rewarding release cue (they are free to go as they please, calm state of mind).*
The KeenDog System:
Double click (using a clicker) or “keen”: terminal marker for food – can come from you, indirectly from you by tossing a piece of food out, make this reward variable – sometimes one piece of food, sometimes a whole handful, allow your dog to push into your hand for the reward, reload during the process and continue to reward with both hands, have your dog chase after you….make this a super fun release to a reward!
Single click (using a clicker) or “good”: duration marker with food – means keep doing what you are doing, I will come to you with the reward. Essentially “stay” in behavior. Creates calmness in your dog. Should reward roughly 95% of the time.
“Yes”: terminal marker for a toy reward. Many trainers use the same terminal marker for food and a toy, we find it beneficial to use one for each, especially if you are struggling with building toy drive in a highly food motivated dog. If you use the same marker they will expect the food reward or disengage thinking they will get food over the toy. By using two different markers this will increase the value for each; your dog knowing it will be either a food or toy reward.
“Nope” or “Eh eh”: that is not what I want, try again. No reinforcement or correction given.
Once you have established a marker system here are THREE ways to improve your communication with your dog to get them to listen more consistently.
- Environment: Teaching your dog in a non distracting environment is extremely important to keep them engaged so that they can learn. You wouldn’t try and read a book or study for a test at a Panthers game, yet we do this all the time to our dogs by expecting them to listen to our verbal cues alone when other distractions in the environment may be more rewarding than just a “good boy” from you. Also we see that when your dog doesn’t listen owners get frustrated and raise their voices in a stern way to expect their dogs to understand. It is important to slowly and incrementally add distractions, raising your expectations in conjunction to where your dog is at in your training process. Watch our video on the 3 D’s (distance, duration and distractions) for further information on this.
- “Nope”: Not to be confused with a correction. Sometimes when your dog doesn’t listen it is because you have corrected them, raised your voice too much or it wasn’t clear to them what they did incorrectly so they mentally check out and begin displaying avoidance behaviors. By using a marker such as “nope” you can tell your dog that what they offered (or didn’t) is not what you wanted but to try again. The goal is to keep them offering up positive behavior without checking out. When corrections are added too soon or too hard that is when your dog will opt to not even try, and we don’t want that. Telling them they are not doing the correct thing doesn’t need to kill their motivation. The anticipation of the reward coming should beat the actual reward . The process should excite your dog. You want your dog to stay engaged, try harder and build frustration within themselves to work to get the correct behavior you want. There is a quote I love that Jordan Peterson said “Play the game so that you’re invited back.” I love this because I look at it for life in the way I like to operate, compete and when working with dogs. I always want the dog to want to keep going and comeback to train not afraid to make a mistake. The key to this is going to be shaping your behaviors and if they are just not getting it adding in a “nope” without correcting your dog.
- Timing: This seems pretty self explanatory and for the most part it is but I want to focus on specifically praise vs marking. Admittedly, I am guilty of this myself. You ask for a down and then say “good down”, “good boy/girl” or “good job” and then pet the dog in between. This is not a marker, this is praise. Also a common mistake is repeating the marker; don’t do that. It only devalues the marker. Move your body to assist and chunk down the picture for your dog vs repeating your marker. If you constantly repeat your markers this will only devalue them.
As humans we are experts at multitasking and complex thought patterns. We often live in the past, present, and future within our heads and with our actions; we send emails, look at instagram and whatever else is in our daily multi-tasking life. However, we are often inconsistent with our emotions and language we use with our dogs. Sometimes we do and say too much. I challenge you to focus on one or two specific behaviors and own up to the process to get there, I mean really OWN it with your dog. If it is a down, try a down with no hand signals, in front of you, the side of you or maybe you get crazy and run from your dog with your back turned then call out down while moving in another direction. Have fun with it. Dogs are incredible loving creatures who are only here for a short time so make the most of your time with them.
Don’t forget to shoot a video and tag us when working with them we love to see our KeenDogs all across the world @keendogtraining.
- Phill Kensington @keendog.phillip