Scruffy, sit, sit, sit, SIT! . . . Sound familiar?
Training words is often cause for much human frustration. Dogs attend to and learn our physical gestures and body language easily. Dogs notice facial expressions, small gestures and tones of voice that often we aren’t even aware of. Learning words is another matter. Unlike humans, dogs aren’t verbal. They communicate with one another and us using a wide range of physical gestures and vocalizations, not words.
If we want dogs to respond to words, it’s up to us to take the time to teach dogs what certain words mean. Keep in mind that it’s much easier for dogs to learn physical cues for a behavior — such as a hand signal that means “sit,” — than it is for dogs to learn what specific words mean.
Fortunately, with lots of consistent practice you can teach your dog words or “verbal cues” by following this simple three-step mantra:
SAY IT. SHOW IT. PAY IT.
Let’s break it down using “sit” as an example. You’ve taught Scruffy to sit using a food lure, and you’ve been training Scruffy to sit in response to a specific empty hand signal. By “empty,” I mean you are no longer holding food in your hand to lure Scruffy into position.
When Scruffy sits eight out of ten times in response to your empty hand signal, it’s time to start teaching her that the word “sit” means the same thing as the hand signal. Here’s how:
SAY IT: First say, “Scruffy sit.” Say the word one time only in an upbeat tone. Articulate clearly. Repeating the word doesn’t make Scruffy learn faster. In fact, repeating the word will most likely land it squarely in the meaningless blah-blah-blah category from Scruffy’s standpoint, or she might learn to sit only after you’ve said the word several times in a row.
SHOW IT: After you’ve asked Scruffy to sit once, show her the empty hand signal for sit. Don’t say the word and do the hand signal at the same time. If you do that, Scruffy will pay attention to the hand signal and ignore the word. If you tend to say the word and do the hand signal simultaneously, it helps to say the word, take a breath, then do the hand signal.
Saying the word once, then doing the hand signal teaches Scruffy that the word means the same thing as the gesture.
PAY IT: After Scruffy sits, click and reward her with a treat and tell her what an awesome dog she is.
Stick to the mantra, practice regularly, and one day Scruffy will surprise you. You’ll know she’s started to connect the dots when she sits after you’ve said the word, but before you’ve shown the hand signal.
To take word training to the next level, wait until Scruffy’s sitting in response to the verbal cue at least 8 out of 10 times. When she’s at that point, modify the reward scheme. Reward her with a yummy treat for sitting in response to the word. If she doesn’t sit in response to the verbal cue, show her the hand signal, and reward her with praise for sitting. This teaches her that sitting in response to the word alone earns a better reward than sitting in response to the word plus hand signal, and should motivate her to sit more reliably when you say the word.
Keep training sessions brief (3-5 minutes at a time) and expectations realistic. It takes most dogs many many repetitions of SAY IT, SHOW IT, PAY IT to learn words. Try to put yourself in their paws. They’re learning a completely foreign language, a task that must be as challenging for them as it would be for us to learn to “speak dog.”
Patient positive practice pays off. Happy training!