More than words

by | Feb 29, 2020

We expect our dogs to understand the meaning of words and signals, but if you have ever worked with computers you will know that what you say doesn’t always turn into an actionable response.

(The customer seeking advice from the support line: “can you send me a replacement keyboard please, mine is missing the ANY key?” …..) 


There is an inherited arrogance in training that the dog needs to put all the effort into understanding us, rather than us making the effort to be clear in our communication to them. Our skills are developed as children with our parents, teachers and peers, but these skills are not the same as communicating with another species or a computer.

Very often simple cues such as “heel” or “bed” may be obvious to us but if the dogs could answer it would be a question of “do what?” We expect them to adduct to find the possible solution to earn reward. Both “heel” and “bed” imply a destination and have no information as to the action that will be successful.

Side by side

Walking down the road and the dog is at the far end of the leash. You give the cue “heel” (I hope not with a slap to the leg) with the intention for the dog to move to a pre-decided destination relative to you, continue to maintain that position under all conditions.

Should the dog:

a) turn around and come back to you repositioning themselves at the desired location
b) stop and wait until you catch up, or
c) walk backwards to the position?

More importantly do they have the skills to do any of those behaviours and the skills to choose which one will be successful under the immediate conditions? (The immediate conditions may vary as to which squirrel has just launched at a tree, which dead frog’s scent has come into urgent range or an abandoned chunk of freshly fried bacon just coming into reach)

When our cue is a destination it gives very poor, or no, information to the dog as to how to respond.

Yes, I would be irritated, stand still, look at you over my shoulder and sigh.

“There she goes again….. huh?”

Bed. NOW

I can teach a youngster to go to their bed. We stand close to the bed and I lure the dog onto the bed and within 3 or 4 repetitions give the gesture, she responds and I then feed at the destination. It changes from a lured walk-through to an offered response. I increase the distance by taking one step at a time backwards away from the bed, repeat the gesture and she travels to the bed, I join her and reward.

But what if we turn around 180° and stand with our back to the bed? Have I yet taught her to LOOK for the bed, and go around me to get to the bed? No, not under these conditions.

She has learned to respond to the cue “bed” with the hand gesture provided she is facing the bed and can see it, and no further away than a few steps.

Cues require rules of grammar

Words, signals should be actions, then destinations, beginning of actions or ending of actions. We should look at the behaviours as a sequence of actions that result in a destination.

For the dog at the end of the leash:

Stop   >>  turn around  >> move to this spot   >> turn around >> stand still  >> REWARD.

This usually teaches the recognisable behaviour known as the Leash Yo-yo.

To be able to maintain the relative (heel) position we have to consider the movement the dog needs to learn to synchronise with us whilst at the same time inhibiting responses arriving from the environment. This is a whole package of skills that take considerable time and effort to learn.

Where is bed?

Anytime we are asking the dog to go to a destination we should be teaching them to look for the destination before the cue to travel to the destination. We can use a whole range of games that they will enjoy tremendously that teach the skills of finding an object, a reward, or a location. This “look for, look at” behaviour then becomes the opening cue to “go to xyz” with additional cues to pick up “xyz”, lie down on “xyz”, “eat xyz”.

Then ask yourself is “look for” the same as “look at”? One implies a stillness whilst visually scanning and the other implies a mobile searching pattern whilst seeking. Not the same actions. Different cues, different signals.

First response

Your opening cue should be the action the dog will need to do first to be able to be successful. Think of your cues as actions, not targets.

  1. When hearing a cue what is the dog going to do?
  2. Have you taught the dog how to “do” that?
  3. Are you sure the cue is associated with that action?

For every cue or signal you give the dog write down a clear description of what the action is, not just “do it”.


Stop what you are doing  >> look for me >> run to my hand

If you desire a prompt response then the most critical learning will be “stop what you are doing”, and be clear what that action looks like, how you will teach it and how you will reward it. The run to my hand is easy part if the first part is successful.




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Key Reading

The Experienced Dog

Knowing your dog has receive sufficient preparation does not mean every eventuality, but a range of different conditions so that when the unexpected happens they will draw on their skills and solve the issue.

The Value of Experience

The non-experienced, or current generation of imposters, have attended a course, read a book, got a certificate and have yet to gain experience to deepen their knowledge or understanding of the subject, protocol, method …

Chasm opening up?

The more I see “sit, down, come, stay heel” as the essential basics the more I am moving further away from the general view of living with dogs.

Normal is always changing

What was normal in training 20 or 40 years ago is not the same today. There are folk persistently maintaining the normal of 1976, but fortunately there are enough folk with a deeper understanding of the processes that have moved normal forwards.

Shaping by rewards

When I see a dog showing a behaviour that is heading towards potential conflict, my first question is “what rewards are available?”

What is a Trainer?

I know what I am, as a trainer. But does my view of “A Trainer” coincide with, or even overlap with yours?

A Cue or not a cue?

With thoughtful planning and a good understanding of the relevance of antecedent selection we can teach the dog the skills of sorting the wheat from the chaff, finding the bones of the exercise. This skill is critical to being able to distinguish between distractions, which are just cues for an alternative reward opportunity, and cues which signify a guarantee of success.

When we train a dog it grows

Most training starts from necessity. Management is a necessity but it usually benefits all parties by a reduction of conflict. Are they expanding their skills to benefit us or for their benefit?

Heartbeat of living with dogs

I like to regard a “teacher of dogs” as someone who meets dogs in their world and teaches them how to be their best whilst living alongside us in our world.

The choice of lure

Luring teaches trainers essential skills. We learn how to use suggestion and guidance to shape behaviours. We learn how to explain dynamic movement in the cues from our hands. In combination with reinforcement, luring has without doubt, been one of the skills I value most as a trainer.

Top Training

One dog watching

The other dog working
or ….how to train the spectators to quietly rest and watch whilst you work, play, teach a single member of the group

The Power of Passive Learning

Active learning: the learner takes active choice of what to do, how to respond, is attentive and making conscious effort
Passive learning: little conscious effort, reward is delivered for minimum effort.

A Day of Learning

A no-training day does not mean he gets a lazy day lying idly in the sun. Learning is still happening and this is significant and important for his development.

Surprising Puppy

Surprising Puppy. With obnoxious moments. After introducing the obnoxious puppy as a youngster I am knocked over by the Delightful Young Man he is turning into……

Obnoxious Puppy

The delight of your new puppy is probably going to last a few weeks, maybe four if you are lucky. When 12 weeks old hits, and you will feel a slam, the Delight is going to demonstrate ungrateful, obnoxious traits.


Preparing before you train and the final check list

Not all lures contain food

“the direct use of the reinforcer to elicit the behaviour”
This should always be foremost in our mind, in that many alternatives lures are available.

Remote lures

Lures at a distance, separated from hands, pockets . Using reward stations, patterns, containers

Luring: Hand lures

Learning hand-lure skills, Collect the food, engage, follow, feed.

Duration: sustaining movement

Continuing and maintaining a specific movement


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