What's in a word?

Yesterday we went for a walk with some of the other folks from KODC. Its always great to spend time chatting with other dog people - although I think I might stand out as a particularly crazy dog lady in that group - no one else has four huskies!!


After the walk I was working on some training with Czar, and one of the instructors pointed out that I was making a mistake - being inconsistent - and swapping between saying "drop" and "down".

Consistency is a massive point in dog training. It's important to remember that dogs don't speak English automatically - remember Santa's Little Reindeer listening to Bart Simpson? - and they must learn words from us by association. Once they associate a particular word and/or gesture with a particular behaviour, through behavioural conditioning, they can develop a massive vocabulary, but this takes time.

For some reason, I have found consistency to be incredibly difficult in dog training. "Bridging" words are what you say when you see the dog successfully demonstrate the behaviour you're looking for, while you get out a treat. The instructors suggest using "yes!" as a short, sharp word that can be used quickly to "mark" the correct behaviour - very important with restless dogs who might only offer the behaviour momentarily. Logical, sensible advice. Do you think I could untangle my brain from 30 odd years of saying "good boy!!"? It's taken me weeks of being corrected by every obedience person I know to get somewhere close to consistent with my bridging word. Guaranteed, add a little bit of pressure and I'll suddenly revert back to "good boy" before trying to correct myself, leading to conversational gems such as "goo-ess!!".

Another important point is being consistent in your feet. When the dog is in the heel position, it's next to your left leg. The dog is meant to watch that leg, and follow it along - starting and stopping with the left leg. When you want the dog to walk forward with you, you step out on the left leg. When you want the dog to stay, you step out on the right foot. Sounds logical, right? Absolutely! Can I do it? No bloody way. I spend a lot of time thinking about my accelerator and brake foot, which are actually the wrong way round. Consequently, I think Czar is more likely to see me doing a little skip-step as I take off, which looks like "play with me!" bouncing, not "stay still and quiet, right there." This breaks down his still-developing association between the hand gesture and word "stay". 

The choice of word itself is both important and arbitrary. Some trainers even recommend teaching your dog non-English words (German and Arabic are popular with people training dogs for security work) to prevent other people being able to give commands to that dog successfully. In formal obedience competitions, only English is allowed. In training, we regularly swap dogs, so having a shared vocabulary is helpful. However, it's also important to ensure that the dog is listening to the person handling it at the time. When an instructor or judge says "down your dog", it's important that the dog doesn't drop immediately, but waits for the handler to relay the command.  Some instructors remind us regularly that we should use a different command word - "drop" when the instructor says "down", "sit" when the instructor says "halt". Again, sensible advice, but easy to get into bad habits.

So, my challenge is to work on consistency this month, with my words, hand signals and body cues. Guess I'm just lucky I didn't get too tongue tied and say "dow-drop"  in front of the others at Knox. It'd only convince them that I'm a crazy dog lady... Oh, too late!