Baby Thor

Baby Thor

Training Thor

In January 2010, Thor, a 5-month-old weimaraner, came crashing into my life.

Here, I will outline the steps taken to train him to be a well-mannered dog,

to do agility, and to perform some service dog tasks.

At five months, he is pretty wild.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Working With Words

Dogs are masters of communication.  That does not mean that we always understand them.  Misunderstandings are common largely because a dog's natural language is not verbal.  In order for them to behave in a human household, most dogs must learn a core of verbal cues.  But this does not come easily to them.  Dogs communicate with one another through a complex series of postures, tail position, facial expression, ear  tilt, and more.  People, of course, communicate non-verbally as well.  But often we are unaware of our non-verbal communications.  Dogs are not.  In addition to sending non-verbal messages, dogs are brilliant at reading our non-verbal communications.  And every minute that your dog is with you, he is studying you and becoming more skilled at reading you.

While Thor has been studying me and learning my non-verbal language, I have been focused on teaching him verbal cues.  Each behavior is introduced without the verbal cue which is added later.  These are the lessons we are presently working on.

1. "Off"  has two meanings.  I use it to mean Stop Jumping on Someone (I hope he will learn to never jump on people so that this use of "off" will end).  "Off" also means Get Off the Furniture.  This latter meaning will be continue to be needed as my dogs are allowed, by invitation, to get on the furniture.  This is an important point:  Dogs must wait to be invited onto furniture and must get off when directed to do so.  Those are the Furniture Rules in my household.  Thor either learned  get "off" the furniture in his former home OR he gets off in response to any verbal from me.  I haven't tested it to see which it is but I am pleased when he instantly gets off the bed in response to my verbal cue.  (It should be said that he rarely gets on the bed; only when he is excited and Glitter is already up there.)  One other thing about Furniture Rules:  a dog in my household must earn the right, through good behavior, to be allowed on the furniture at all.  Throughout her life, Vada had limited furniture privileges.  When allowed on furniture, she became "full of herself" and started being too bossy.   She would sometimes beat up other dogs in the house.  So her furniture use was restricted to nil for most of her life.

2. "Business," as in "Do your business" or "Tend to Business" tells my dogs to hurry up and pee!  Thor's previous owners introduced this, and I thought that Thor understood it.  Until I realized that I was just really good at predicting when he was going to pee and saying it then!  He had trained me well!  Now, two months later, I do think he knows this word and it's intended meaning.  At last.

3. "In your crate" or "Get in your crate" have an obvious meaning. Thor definitely learned this before he came into my home. His understanding has not generalized to all circumstances, however, and is most reliable if I'm preparing food or refilling his water bowl.

4. "Settle" (or "Settle Down") is used to get the dog to relax. When I cue this, I want the dog to lie down and be quiet. I look for other signs of relaxation as well, lack of muscle tension in the body and face, relaxed ear position, lack of panting (unless it is very hot), etc. So far, I have used this with Thor only when he is acting agitated in his crate. I'm really not sure how he learned it, but he is quite good (reliable) at settling when I ask for it. Sometimes his reward is simply (I assume) he feels better; sometimes I then release him from the crate.

5. "Hush" means the dog should stop whatever vocalizations are being made. "Settle" incorporates "hush" but asks for more. "Hush" asks only for quiet.

6. "Sit," "Down," and "Stand" are what I refer to as position cues. 
"Sit" means plunk your butt on the ground as soon as I say so.  I like my dogs to sit as a default behavior in place of cue given.  When meeting someone new, I may cue the sit even though I expect it to be automatic; I want to ensure that "Sit" happens!  When cued, it is used to gain control.  I teach my dogs an automatic sit when walking at heel and I stop.  I also use it at the start line in agility.  I like it as a stay position in a variety of circumstances.  I also use it when needed to work a dog in a small space (to calm him or in warm-ups for sport).  I like puppy push-ups ("sit-down-sit-down-sit," etc) and interspersed with targeting (ex. "touch (my hand)-sit-touch").   I like using "sit" in teaching "stay" and other impulse control games.
"Down" means lie down.  My goal is that both "sit" and "down" happen quickly and on the first cue.  I am less likely to ask the dog to "stay" when lying down.  If I've asked for a "stay," I want the dog paying attention to me which I think is less likely from a "down."  
"Stand" means get on all four feet and freeze.  No foot movement is allowed.  Head and tail  movements are fine. As mentioned above, I use this only in the obedience ring or on the table for TDAA agility competition. In general, I think the "stand" position invites movement so, unless I am training it as an obedience exercise, I'm highly unlikely to ask for a "stay" in that position.  I will, however, be teaching Thor to "stand" and brace himself so that I can use his sturdy body for balance.  We've begun that process.

7. "Stay" means maintain the position you are in until released.

8. "Okay" is my casual release word.  I define it as permission for the dog to move out of position.  I use a different release ("Gee") in agility where it means for the dog to explode forward.

9. "Let go" (or "Leggo") means Release What You Are Holding (into my hand).  I teach this by praising every time the dog brings me something and then trading for something of equal or higher value.  If it is safe to do so, I like to give the dog back the object he has presented to me.  Thor, for example, would much rather give me his ball if I then return the ball to him (NOT by throwing it!) than if I give him a food treat.  Balls are much higher value to Thor than food.  Unless he is really hungry or I'm using a piece of steak!

10. "Get It!" tells the dog to take in his mouth whatever I am holding, have thrown, or am pointing out.  It requires that the dog choose the correct object to "get!"  Like every dog owner, I expect a lot!

11. "Heel" indicates that I want the dog to walk nicely on my left.  If I am not moving, he should assume a sitting position in line with my left knee/hip.  "By Me" asks for the same behavior but on my right side.  I have just begun to introduce these words to Thor now that he is more comfortable at my side. And all of his training to date has been without a leash.  I use food or a toy to position and reward him. 

I once attended a seminar given by the late Patty Ruzzo whose training slogan was, "Got a problem? Put a cookie on it!"  She had a room of about 40 dog/handler teams and was teaching heeling in a 20 x 20 foot space.  She has us all up on the floor at once with short leads and handfuls of cookies.  The cookies were held directly in front of the dog's face, and we were encouraged to let our dogs nibble as we walked.  At the time, I had been competing in AKC obedience with Vada and it was Vada who was with me at this seminar.  Vada who, in her younger days, had strong dog-aggressive and possession tendencies.  Despite the crowdedness, every dog was heeling beautifully!  Even Vada!  It was years ago and was one of the things that convinced me to use lots of food treats in training.

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