More Learning through Repetition

July 31, 2009

By Dianna Young

In our last column, we talked about Max, a pleasant, mixed-breed dog whose owner had taught him lessons she hadn’t intended. By failing to require immediate compliance with commands the first time she gave them, she had taught Max the entirely obvious lesson that he didn’t have to comply until she had repeated a command several times.

Despite being a highly intelligent person, the woman also was making other mistakes. They came about because she didn’t consider the differences in the workings of human brains and canine brains. Without being aware that she was doing it, for example, she expected her dog to understand English. Max is a smart dog, but that’s a lot to ask.

For instance, the first time the woman issued her command, she did so properly. “Sit,” she said. When she didn’t get the response she wanted, she modified the command. “I said, ‘Sit!’” she said. The third time she tried, she used a string of other words. “Dammit, Max! I said ‘Sit!’”

Pity poor Max, because English is not his native tongue. Yes, dogs can learn to recognize words and respond to them. But when you string them together in sentences, that’s too much.

We want to use exactly the same command for a particular behavior every time. We don’t want to use “Sit” one day, “Sit down” the next and “Sit down right now!” the day after that. This can be a particular problem within a family. Part of the family may be using “Sit,” others may use “Sit down,” and still others may say, “Max, sit down.” Such lack of consistency in a household is setting a dog up for failure. As far as Max is concerned, everybody is saying something different.

It’s best, by the way, to use the command alone — without the dog’s name — for most commands. “Sit,” for example, to elicit that response. “Down,” for example, or any other word you wish to use consistently, to command the dog to lie down. The words themselves have no meaning for the dog except the meaning that you teach him.

It’s best to attach the dog’s name only to one command, and that command is to “Come.” People often attach the dog’s name to demands for various behaviors and, unfortunately, also to reprimands. “Max, bad dog! Max, get off the sofa! Max, shut up!”

Instead, try associating Max’s name only with good things: “Max, want to go outside? Max, want to go for a ride? Max, what a good boy!” You want to program Max so when he hears his name, he feels like a million bucks. You want him to hear that name and not be able to get to the source of it fast enough.

If you’ve made all the right associations in Max’s brain, the command, “Max, Come!” should fill him with desire to go to you.

Dianna Young is a certified, professional dog trainer and canine behaviorist from Camano Island, where she operates Camano Island Kennels Dog Boarding and Training Facility. She can be reached at (360) 387-DOGS or at info@camanoislandkennels.com. Her web site address is http://www.camanoislandkennels.com. Or visit us at facebook.

One Response to “More Learning through Repetition”
  1. Kimberly Gauthier says:

    I love this blog. I devour as much of the hints as possible, because I want to do a really good job when we finally adopt our dog. Thanks for the post.

    – Kimberly

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