Updated: Jan 23, 2021
Most mornings, my husband and I take our dogs hiking. Because I lug my camera with a ginormous lens in hopes of seeing coyotes, he handles both leashes. This morning, I was walking ahead on a narrow trail when they came running up behind me. A noise sounding something like, “Uh-uh!” came from my husband. As they got even closer, he finally said, “Duck!” This was my signal to participate in the Dance of the Leashes by ducking my head so they could pass without anyone getting tangled.
Naturally, this made me think about dogs and the way we communicate with them. I had no idea what that first sound my husband made meant. I had a notion that it was directed at me, but I didn’t know what specifically he wanted. Once he clarified, I understood. Now, if I asked100 dog owners whether they’re clear when they communicate with their dogs, the majority would answer yes. But would they be right?
I constantly hear owners telling their dogs to “Leave it!” when their dog is approaching or has a forbidden object. Sometimes, because of the tone of voice alone, the dog will momentarily freeze or back away. But how instructive or fair is it if the dog has never actually been taught what “Leave it” means? In case this is something you need to teach, here’s a simple way to begin. Use treats, but not the ones that make your dog do backflips—choose something he likes of so-so value. Hold one treat in in the palm of your hand, and another behind your back. Let your dog see the treat in your palm, then make a fist. As your dog sniffs (trust me, he will), keep your hand solidly in place. Once he backs off, even for a second, say, “Yes!” to mark the moment, then immediately reward with the treat from behind your back. (I recommend this rather than giving the treat in your palm because you don’t want your dog to learn that backing off something means he then gets that thing.) Within a few repetitions, most dogs learn that backing up is what earns them a treat. Once you can reliably predict that he will back up, say, “Leave it!” just as your dog backs up. With more practice, he’ll associate the words with the action.
Of course, there’s more training needed to help your dog generalize “Leave it” to other objects and situations, but think about a dog who has been trained this way versus one who has no idea what the words mean. Unfortunately, it’s far from just this one cue that we expect dogs to know. Many people talk to their dogs like they’re…well, people! They expect their furry family members to understand when they use full, wordy sentences. If the dog is especially talented, maybe he’ll pick out the pertinent words, but it sure makes things more difficult. Another common error is using the same cue, for example, “Down!” for different things such as lying down, getting down off the sofa, or not jumping on visitors.
Next time you find yourself giving your dog a cue he hasn’t been taught, or assuming he’ll understand a full sentence, ask yourself whether you expect your dog to be psychic. And then do both of you a favor by taking the necessary steps to ensure he doesn’t have to be.
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