Well-Read Dogs

Teaching Puppies Their ABC's

Sunday, February 2, 2020


When we venture beyond our dog’s familiar training space, it’s difficult for him to maintain the level of responsiveness he has at home. If a dog rarely goes anywhere, he may appear to be untrained in other situations, so different are the “environmental cues*” to act or respond in a certain way. It’s for this reason that we need to mix up locations when we train. Without this broad foundation of practicing the same thing in different places, our dogs will have a very limited understanding of the cues to which we want them to respond or the behaviors we'd like them to practice. The world is full of things that demand our dogs’ attention, so the more skills they have under their collars and the more we change their environmental picture, the stronger the skills. 

Because of how finely tuned our dogs are to their surroundings, we are often unaware of the environmental cues they notice. 

I was at our local farm supply store recently with our 9 month old pup “Skipper” to purchase a few things... but my primary mission was for him to practice his skills somewhere different. We use the long aisles to practice heeling. Distractions such as other people, dogs, toys, bins of chews, etc. mean that I will be more generous with rewards. We can cultivate excellent attention and focus through intentional exposure (this is a great strategy to help condition focus and prevent reactivity). 

When we got to the check-out counter, there were fly swatters displayed at Skipper’s nose level. He perked right up, knowing exactly what to do: he touched his nose to one with great emphasis. I realized what he was doing and rewarded him. Fly swatters make great target sticks (see my video on teaching targeting for more information) and Skipper recognized a familiar cue right there at the counter. He repeated this so many times that I had to removethe fly swatters just so that I could complete my transaction, all the while apologizing and trying to explain my dog’s strange-to-them behavior to the two men behind the counter.“ Why do you want him to touch a fly swatter? They are dirty!” sneered the cashier. The guy next to him scowled, agreeing. Crazy woman. (I thought it odd that they considered unused fly swatters "dirty").

oH my. 

I’m not gifted at being able to quickly and successfully explain the pertinence of targeting, so vast are its applications. Similarly, I wasn’t able to convey to these two men that Skipper touching a fly swatter with his nose wasn’t the ultimate goal. It’s not a stand-alone skill in a behavioral desert with no attachment to anything else. It is a building block for an infinite number of other behaviors. 

It’s like the letter “e.” 

Think of it like this: a kid has to learn her ABC’s before she can read. You might hear a 4-year old who has been studying the alphabet joyfully exclaim, “I see an ‘e’!” when out and about. She has become more observant of letters. Is the ultimate goal for her to know that that little squiggly line has a name, and it’s pronounced “eeee”? Heck no! That innocent little letter is part of something much, much larger than itself: it’s part of our language. Skipper responding to a target stick (the fly swatter) is like the girl noticing a familiar letter. Yay! we’re in a new environment, but he is able to notice and respond to a familiar feature the way he would at home. 

Teaching our dogs skills helps form a common language between us. Practicing those skills in different places helps them become more fluent. Of course, the flip side is true, too: undesirable behaviors become more fluent the more they are practiced in different locations! 

To what environmental cues does your dog respond? 

*”Environmental Cues” are features present in a dog’s surroundings. These features can involve any of the senses, but we usually think about visual or auditory factors. A dog across the street, for instance, might be an environmental cue for your dog to lunge and bark. A clinical, sterile odor might be your dog’s cue to react fearfully. The sound of a plastic wrapper might make your pup drool in anticipation of a snack.

As an aside and because it’s interesting trivia, “the letter E appears in approximately 11% of all words
in the common English vocabulary, about 6,000 more words than the runner-up letter, A. What’s more: E is the most commonly struck letter on your keyboard, and the second most popular key after the space bar.” source: Oxford English Dictionary