How to Get Your Dog to Do As You Ask

Modern Dog - - TRAINING - By Stan­ley Coren Il­lus­tra­tion by Kai­ley Lang

o your dog is not obey­ing your in­struc­tions. She has clearly learned the ba­sic com­mands of “sit,” “down,” and “come,” but some­times when you is­sue those in­struc­tions she obeys and some­times she acts com­pletely clue­less and does not re­spond. This prob­lem is not unique to you and your dog—it is even a con­cern for ex­pert dog train­ers who com­pete at the high­est lev­els of obe­di­ence com­pe­ti­tion. For­tu­nately sci­ence has an an­swer that might help you to get your dog to more re­li­ably re­act to your com­mands.

I was re­cently at a dog-train­ing sem­i­nar. Dur­ing one of the breaks, a small group of highly re­spected dog train­ers and dog obe­di­ence com­peti­tors had gath­ered to­gether, card­board coffee cups in hand. They were do­ing what dog han­dlers of­ten do when they get to­gether, namely dis­cussing how best to get dogs to do what you want them to do. It was a rather vig­or­ous de­bate, and this time the is­sue in dis­pute was whether or not to use your dog's name as part of the com­mand. The group was all in agree­ment that it was crit­i­cal that the dog must be pay­ing at­ten­tion to the han­dler in or­der to get a re­li­able re­sponse, but whether the dog's name was needed to cap­ture that at­ten­tion was up for de­bate.

One highly suc­cess­ful dog obe­di­ence com­peti­tor in­sisted that if the dog is al­ready pay­ing at­ten­tion to its han­dler then us­ing his name as part of the com­mand is not only un­needed, but might ac­tu­ally be a dis­trac­tion. He ar­gued that the us­ing the dog’s name merely pro­vides the dog with a sound that con­veys no ad­di­tional in­for­ma­tion in this sit­u­a­tion. In fact, this dog trainer sug­gested that giv­ing the dog's name sim­ply de­layed the pro­cess­ing of the ac­tual com­mand and might be a mean­ing­less dis­trac­tion.

A se­cond mem­ber of the group pointed out that dogs live in a sea of hu­man ver­bal sounds and the dog's name serves to alert the dog to the fact that the next set of sounds com­ing from the han­dler's mouth is di­rected at them, rather than be­ing part of a con­ver­sa­tion that you might be hav­ing with an­other hu­man be­ing. She sug­gested, “If I say ‘Come here!’ how does the dog know who I am talk­ing to? It could be that I was speak­ing to the per­son next to me, or per­haps to some­one across the room, or if I am in the show ring I could be talk­ing to the judge rather than specif­i­cally is­su­ing an in­struc­tion to my dog. How­ever, if I say ‘Lassie come here!’ there is no am­bi­gu­ity and the dog im­me­di­ately knows that the com­mand was di­rected at her.”

The third trainer in­sisted that us­ing the dog’s name was an op­por­tu­nity to cap­ture the dog’s at­ten­tion be­fore is­su­ing the obe­di­ence com­mand. She said that, es­pe­cially in compe-

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