Dog’s Eye View: Your attention, please
The announcer came over the public address system, and the crowd quieted in anticipation of important information. Without that “announcement,” people would have carried on with their conversations, not giving the intercom announcement a second thought.
“Good morning students, I have great news. We are cutting back school hours to three hours a day with a full hour for lunch.”
If the announcer had not first gotten the attention of the students, they would have all shown up the next day for class at 8 a.m. So having attention first directs the message to the intended audience.
If we are sitting in a crowded restaurant having dinner with multiple friends, we take the time to address the person we wish to communicate with by saying their name.
“Hey Joe, how about that Bronco game?” And then, the lamenting dialogue begins.
When teaching our companion dog new behaviors, we often start mid-sentence by saying what we want them to do before we ask for their attention. In our classes and consultations, one of the first things we teach the dog is what his name actually means.
Mr. Sparks, of Lafayette Meadows — aka “Sparky” — sits quietly looking out the window, watching the birds in the trees. Hearing the sound of his name, he quickly turns his head in the direction the “attention cue” came from. Then, the conversation begins.
“Sparky, come here.”
Sparky’s name means, “look at me; I’m about to start a conversation.” We add hand signals to start training so Sparky knows more communication is forthcoming and he should be watching us for signals. Since dogs primarily use body language to communicate, if we use body language to communicate in return, the dog is more likely to maintain focus on us. Adding positive reinforcement for that compliance strengthens the behavior, and the dog will be more willing to continue to listen.
Let’s take a look at the opposite scenario — using dominance to command the dog to behave. To begin with, the dog’s name often has a bad connotation attached to it; it means many things, such as “Stop what you are doing,” “Get over here; you are in trouble,” or “I’m gonna teach you a lesson,” etc.
The fact that the dog’s name is used as a multi-conversational cue and a signal that punishment is coming gives it a negative connotation. And if punishment is attached to it, hearing that sound becomes aversive to the dog. Did you ever see a dog hear his name and leave the scene? Yep, you guessed it. That dog’s name is poison. It means something bad is coming down, and he’s ready to put as much distance between himself and that sound as possible.
The simple definition of positive reinforcement used in dog training is this: Behavior that is positively reinforced is likely to occur more often. Let’s take that one step further: Teaching and learning in a positive way creates communication and an enduring trust bond between dog and human. Building an investment in that trust bond allows us to take small withdrawals when a reprimand for mistakes is made.
Starting out a relationship with dominance and control might teach the human he can control the behavior. It also might mistakenly be looked upon as respect from the animal. A behavior that is punished is less likely to occur in the future, but at what cost? Does the announcement automatically trigger joy or fear?
And so the announcer says “Sparky, you are such a good boy!” And Sparky wags his tail and comes close to his human, enjoying this trusting relationship.
He delights in hearing the sound that is his name.
Laura Tyler is a certified professional dog trainer with more than 25 years of experience. She has earned associate certification through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and owns Total Teamwork Training LLC here in Northwest Colorado.
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