When Words Won’t Work

Humans are hard-wired for words.  So much so that we have a most difficult time grasping that our words don’t always promote understanding.  When faced with lack of comprehension, our first instincts are to 1) repeat what we’ve just said — multiple times, and 2) talk louder.  Bill Cosby based a hilarious comedy routine on this quirk as practiced by parents.  Pretending to talk to his children, he chants, “Come here.  Here! Here! Here, here, here, here, here, here, here!”  And the audience guffaws because they’ve heard themselves doing the same thing, many times!

It’s funny (or frustrating) when the other person is not listening or doesn’t want to respond.  Saying words over and over and louder and louder is obviously silly when the other person doesn’t speak our native tongue.  We know that, though the impulse to repeat and talk louder may be too strong to resist, initially.  What amazes me, is that people don’t seem to make the same connection when they’re speaking to their dog.  They just get frustrated.

Folks ask a dog to “Sit” and if Princess doesn’t have her bottom on the ground in 1 second flat, they say it again.  And again.  And again and again, getting frustrated and (probably) louder each time.  Sure, Princess might be stubborn or ignoring you – or maybe you didn’t get her attention before throwing out a command.  However, Princess could just need a little time to process (unless you’ve been working on speeding up response time.)  Even with humans, repeating instructions while someone is trying to figure them out isn’t very helpful.  And what if you’ve gotten in the habit of telling Princess, “Sit” multiple times?  Princess might think she has to wait for the “magic number” before she should obey!  Or the problem could be even more basic.

If Ms. Smith goes to Russia and the hotel receptionist says, “Sadit’sya!” Ms. Smith probably won’t know how to respond.  Will she be helped if the receptionist  snaps out the word  like a drill sergeant, over and over?  I doubt it.  Yet, that is what we do with our dogs on a daily basis.  How could Ms. Smith be expected to know the Russian word for “Sit”?  Well, how can we expect Princess to understand that that one short combination of the almost-constantly-occurring noises her owner makes is telling her to do something specific – UNLESS Princess is TAUGHT what it means, first?

“Duh!” you’re probably thinking, but I can assure you that our hard-wiring for language sabotages our good intentions, even when we understand the concept.  In lessons, I say that this week we’re going to teach Princess that “Sit” means put-your-bottom-on-the-ground.  (The owner’s head nods in comprehension and agreement.) We’re going to use the Cue word, “Sit,” immediately followed by the lure that gets Princess to put her bottom on the ground. (Again the nods.)  We’re going to practice it just that way at home all week, because we want to make sure Princess has time to learn what the word “Sit” means.  (Much nodding.) We’re only going to say “Sit” ONE time so she doesn’t get confused.  (More nodding.)  Then we practice doing that until I’m sure that the nodding indeed means the owner understands and can do all the steps. Before the end of the lesson I ask the owner to review how she’s going to teach Princess what “Sit” means.  The owner nods again, faces her dog and says, “Sit” – when Princess doesn’t have her bottom on the ground in 1 second flat, I hear, “Sit!  Sit!  Sit, sit, sit…”

Instead of following the vocal cue with luring Princess into a sit, the owner has immediately repeated the word.  Why?  I am as sure as I can be that the owner understands what to do. Saying, “Sit” and luring into position has gotten impeccable results when we practiced earlier in the lesson.  Even if they think it’s a silly way to work, most people won’t ignore what the teacher has told them to do in class, though they might once they get home. The owner may have forgotten the steps already, though the practice we did should have moved the knowledge into long-term memory.  It’s possible her owner thinks Princess is the smartest dog in the world and has learned the cue from mere dozen or so reps.  However, most likely that ole human hard-wiring for language is sabotaging us again!

Canines are not hard-wired for language – i.e. words.  They use vocalizations (bark, snarl, yip, etc.) as aids in communication, but their brains don’t have the same language center that ours do.  Even if they did understand the concept of words, they still wouldn’t automatically understand our words, any more than Ms. Smith understands Russian just because she goes there.  I hear people say all the time, “Princess knows what that means, she just won’t do it.” Our dogs are hard-wired to please us, so if Princess consistently doesn’t obey a cue, in most cases it’s because she doesn’t know what it means!  Now, dogs often pick up on words by watching us over a long period of time, but if we really want a dog to obey a specific Cue, we have to expect to put some time into teaching her what it means.

To best accomplish that means we have to overcome our impulse to jump in with more words.  Everybody, even experienced trainers do it if they’re not thinking about it!   Repeating the cue over and over won’t help.  (Just frustrate us and confuse the dog.) Trying to explain in words what the cue means won’t help. (For obvious reasons.)  The best help we can give our dogs is to close our mouths and use THEIR native tongue – body language!  When a single word doesn’t work, give Princess a second to process and then lure her into position!  You’re still giving the Cue, it’s just in Doglish!

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