Teach It, Don’t Preach It! (Why merely intensifying a cue won’t work.)

Your dog looks at you with a relaxed expression and wags her tail.  You say “Sophie, sit.”  Sophie remains on all 4s, looking and wagging.  “Sit” you say again.  Sophie cocks her head and wags faster.  Louder and firmly, you repeat “Sit!” (You want her to know you mean it.)  Sophie sniffs the carpet for cookie crumbs the vacuum might have missed – still on all 4s.  “Sit. SIT, SOPHIE – SIT!” Ears back and tail low, Sophie wanders off.  Is she being stubborn? No.  Obtuse?  No.  Dominant?  NO!  Either Sophie doesn’t know what the sound you’re repeating means, or she has no consistent experience of being reinforced for the behavior you want her to perform in response to that cue, or both.

Dogs learn by the consequences of their behavior.  If Sophie consistently receives something desirable like small tasty treat for putting her bottom on the ground, you can bet her bottom dollar she’ll put her behind on the ground frequently.  If you pair her bottom down efforts with the word “sit” as the behavior takes place, then reward with a treat, Sophie will come to understand, “Ah, that sound means an opportunity to earn a snack for settling on my hind quarters – good deal!”

Getting louder and firmer doesn’t provide Sophie with more information about what you want.  All she understands is, “My person is in a mood suddenly, who knows why.  Better play it safe and give him some space to calm down.”  If your dog isn’t responding to your cue for a certain behavior, what’s needed is teaching, not preaching.

How to train it… Find a time when things are quiet, with minimal distractions competing for attention.  Hold a treat in your hand and move it over Sophie’s head slowly toward her tail, so it becomes more comfortable for her to see the prize from a sitting position.  If your dog steps backward to maintain visual contact, you can train in a corner so there’s no room for her to perform the incorrect response.  If she jumps up, just move your hand out of range with no comment, wait for 4-on-the-floor, and resume luring her into a sitting position.  The instant her fanny touches floor, say “Yes” to mark the correct response, then quickly deliver the treat to the still sitting student.  Practice in different places so she can generalize the idea.

Train happy, train often!

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