Thursday, October 16, 2014

Beyond Sit: Useful Cues and Verbal Control

A harmonious relationship relies on each party both comprehending the other, and being able to relay information in a way that is comprehendible by the other. We must speak the same language. We all know that. 
Humans and dogs inherently don’t speak the same language. There is no natural common ground communication, which means we have to build it. We must become bilingual. 
Our dogs are already somewhat better at that than we are. Although they only speak doggish, they are interested in us and understand our body signals, and they are capable to learn the meaning of words we speak. In contrast, dogs’ communication signals, other than a few overt ones, are a mystery to most people. Which means we have to make a conscious effort to learn to read dog - but we shouldn’t speak it, because it is a half-ass attempt at best. We really are lousy in getting it right. Instead, we ought to teach our dogs to understand the language native to our species, and I prefer verbal signaling to non-verbal cues. Why? Aside from the fact that my body awareness is less than stellar, which means I can be much more precise with words, hand and body signals only work if the dog is looking.

Unless there is a physiological reason, all dogs can learn the meaning of words, but not all have equal aptitude. The more visually inclined, like our not so new anymore Border collie Bowie, are innately more aware of movements and learn to distinguish body signals more easily. From the very start, Bowie closely watched me to make sense of his world.  Nevertheless, with a little intentional effort - putting a precise word right in front of a distinct hand-signal with the goal to ditch the latter at one point - he has now a nice repertoire of cues under verbal control.
Wait = don’t move
Come, lie down, sit, kitty, deer, squirrel, ball, disc, stick, car – although the verbal cue to get in the car may be the sound of the doors unlocking.
Bowie has name recognition and Bowie is a no-fail attention getter, but he also still responds to his previous name, Billie. Bowie’s ear tips often cutely bob when he walks, and his nickname is Billiebobedybobbobbowie, and his head pops around the moment he hears Billie
Easy = slow your movement while you approach something, but that cue is actually changing right now into Walk Up, and we’re almost there
Keep Going = keep on moving forward
Get It = release cue to go after something that moves
Leave It = shift your focus and walk away
Head Off = avert your head/quit staring at something/someone
Over = move to the side
Cross = the road in a straight line
Move = over on the couch/bed or out of the way
Back Up = create distance to me – not the same as Beep-Beep back up that happens in a straight line back. With Back Up, Bowie turns around to walk away, then halts, and focuses on me again
With Me = walk right beside me holding eye contact
Drop It = drop what's in your mouth in front of me
Give = release into my hand
Go Pee = self-explanatory, ditto Stop Licking Your Butt
Yes = reward marker. Interestingly, Good Boy, which and unlike Yes is not always followed with tangible reward, only elicits a happy tail wag when Bowie is watching me, which indicates that he relies on my happy facial expressions to feel happy too vs. Yes where the anticipation of the reward makes him happy. My observational input to Dr. Patricia McConnell recent article
Hey-hey = interrupter.

All of the above do not rely on a hand or body signal any longer. I am sure of it because often when I am using any of these, Bowie is looking elsewhere, sometimes has his back turned to me. That is not to say that I am not giving non-verbal cues, just that he is not seeing them and hence responds to the spoken word. Not talking with your body is more difficult than you may think. Inadvertently, you might be giving facial, body and hand messages you are unaware of until you pay conscious attention to it. 
Some cues, because of the context in which we use them, will always have a non-verbal component.
Drop It and Give are under verbal control, and for a while I believed that Hand = bringing his disc to my hand instead of dropping it in front of me, also was, but of course I am reaching my hand out to receive it. Likewise with Gentle, Bowie’s soft mouth reminder, and Touch – the hand target game. Is it the word or hand that prompts him to respond?
Stay = you’re not coming with us and have to stay in the house/car, and Let's Go  = you are coming and we are going to move in the same direction together, also automatically involve my body.
Our new cue Do It, based on Claudia Fugazza’s work on social learning, is under verbal cue, but prior to it Bowie is watching my body demonstrate something.

And then we have a few that are in various stages of being under sole verbal cue:
Front = sit in front of me
Around = get into heel position from an in front of me sit, and Spin = turn around your own body
Stand = self-explanatory
Platz = sit on the mat/towel 
Rechts and Links (right and left directional cues) still require my pointing or leaning in the corresponding direction, but Rechts is a lot better than Links, and we’ve had a few times when I could direct Bowie with a verbal Rechts to take a certain path on an off leash hike.
Pass Auf, which I use to remind Bowie to watch what I demonstrate, is mostly under verbal cue but, like Rechts, not always. Same with Clean Up = gather up your toys and put them in your basket. With the ones we’re almost there, I wait for a few seconds after the word to see if he comes up with the correct behavior, and only help if I need to. Sometimes repeating the verbal cue works as well.
All Done, Bowie’s information that no more reinforcements, including attention and interaction, are coming from me for the time being, needs the hand signal, and its related cue In Five, also does.
Momma, Daddy, Will all need pointing, and so does Jump = over something and Up = onto something.

Jotting down all the things Bowie knows made me realize how much he’s learned in the last 7 months. To boot, to the best of my knowledge the language he heard prior to coming to Nova Scotia was French, not English. I know, I am bragging, but I don’t mean to. Honestly! When I set out to write this post I actually wanted to share something I read about before and now noticed with Bowie, but as the fingers hit the keyboard the post took a life of its own. Perhaps because lately I’ve been brooding off and on if I deserve a Border collie, or if I am wasting talent since I am not into dog sports, tricks and traditional obedience, and my search for a place nearer to us for more herding lessons or Rally O’ classes has been futile.

Anyway, what I originally wanted to share was that with Bowie the sound of a word seems to matter. For example, when I taught the behavior wait, I tested Stop, Halt, Stay and Wait. Wait got me an ear twitch right away, with the other three there was no response, so we used Wait even though Will’s cue for the same behavior is Stay. In that fashion, I fooled around with a few words for every behavior, hence the apparent erratic mix of English and German words that isn’t erratic at all, but consistently planned. I feel though that we didn’t get all of it right, indicated by the fact that some behaviors still rely on non-verbal help even though we rehearsed them just like the others. I’m not loosing sleep over it. 

What is the take-away message? Don’t worry if your dog learns some things better than others. We are all individuals. But don’t give up either. It is important, for day-to-day life, that you establish common ground communication that allows you to give your dog information when he needs it. If you’re stuck, maybe it’s the word itself that is the hurdle. You don’t have to use the words commonly used, or the ones your trainer tells you to. Play around with other ones. Have fun. Watch your dog to find out which one he has an ear for, and then use that, and be careful not to botch it, turning it into a poisoned cue.

1 comment:

  1. You have every right to brag and more. Like I said before you guys "Rock". Also it is an excellent article about communication and how to have fun doing it. Thanks