Teaching your dog to respond -- immediately!

N.H. Sunday News - Dog Tracks Column - 2/5/12
By: Gail T. Fisher

In last week’s column I wrote about “behavioral fluency” – training your dog to respond effortlessly and naturally, just as we think of fluency in being able to speak a foreign language. (You can read last week’s column here). Behavioral fluency means that the dog’s response is prompt, fast, and accurate.

Looking at these three elements of fluency, an “accurate” response means that the behavior you cue is the behavior you get. When you say “down”, your dog lies down. She doesn’t sit or stand or scratch herself—she simply lies down. “Fast” is the speed with which the behavior is performed, and depends on the individual dog and the behavior. For instance, a giant breed such as a Mastiff would not lie down as fast as a more agile dog such as a Border Collie. “Fast”, therefore, can be judged individually, depending on the dog’s structure, age, energy level, physical health, and the like.

Which leaves “prompt.” Promptness refers to the time frame between the dog hearing the cue and initiating a response. A prompt response means that as soon as you say “down” your dog starts to lie down (the speed at which he gets there, depends on how “fast” he’s able to do it).

We often train our dogs to respond slowly, or even to need a second or third cue before performing a behavior. Consider when you say “down” and your dog simply looks at you. You repeat “down” and your dog lies down. “Good dog,” ...thinking “at least she did it.” But that sequence of cue-pause- cue-response-praise actually teaches and reinforces the dog for waiting. That pause is called “latency”—the delay between the cue and the response. Long latency is the opposite of “prompt.” But here’s the good news! It is really easy to eliminate that pause, and reduce the latency of your dog’s response. Here’s a simple recipe for teaching it to your dog.

Think of it as giving your dog a small window of opportunity within which, if your dog responds to your cue, she’ll get a reward for that response. Your cue opens the window. For most dogs, a reasonable time frame to respond is within two seconds of hearing the cue. So if your dog doesn’t respond within two seconds, the window of opportunity shuts: the bar is closed—no reward is available.

It’s important to communicate to your dog when the window is closed by using what I refer to as a “lost opportunity marker” (LOM), which can be anything such as “Oops,” or “Too bad” or “Nope.” The LOM tells your dog: “You have lost the opportunity to earn a treat. Even if you respond now, it’s too late.” Here’s how to train it:

Give your dog a cue for a behavior she knows and wait two seconds. If your dog responds, great! If not, say your LOM then remove your attention briefly by looking away from your dog for a count of two. This brief action acts as a “punisher” for your dog’s non-response. Then look back to your dog and give the cue again. When your dog responds to your second cue, mark it with “yes” and praise briefly (no treat—just verbal praise). Move your dog slightly to repeat this sequence. Again, if your dog doesn’t respond within two seconds, say “Oops”, look away, turn back, re-cue and mark it with “yes” and praise. Repeat this a third time. Chances are the third time you do it, your dog will respond to your cue right away. Mark it and reward with a food treat.

The message you’re sending your dog is that she earns the best reward—the food treat—only by responding without hesitation. In this way your dog learns to respond with promptness. Try it. You’ll love it!

Copyright © Gail T. Fisher, 2012. All rights reserved. http://www.alldogsgym.com For permission to reprint this article or suggestions for future topics, please contact us.