Several years ago (OK, so it was many years ago!) there was a TV commercial for some brand of ketchup. The visual was a hamburger with a bottle of the red stuff poised to pour over it. The ketchup was moving ve-ry sloooow-ly as somebody sang Carly Simon’s “Anticipation!” The point was that the best things in life (including ketchup, apparently) are worth waiting for and appreciated more when we look forward to them. It’s a philosophy that most humans try to espouse — even if not over ketchup. Dogs don’t!
Dogs aren’t really into savoring the moment. Dogs want to get from A to B as fast as possible — and are always looking for short-cut C! So they commonly produce an activity labeled “anticipation” by dog trainers, but utilizing an alternate meaning of the word: to act in advance.
Just like the know-it-all who interrupts mid-sentence with smug expectancy of what you’re going to say, dogs take a pinch of previous experience and jump to conclusions! When I was a kid, we had a GSD who, upon seeing anyone pick up a treat, would Sit, Offer a Paw, Lie Down, flop over in a Dead Dog, Roll Over, then pop back up and grin in expectation of her reward. She’d do all this without a cue being spoken and faster than it took me to type it all.
Yes, it was very cute, and yes, she was a very smart dog. However, this wasn’t necessarily a display of her “smarts,” just a dog’s impatience to cut to the chase. (It also displayed a defect in the way we trained her — always asking for behaviors in the same order, but that’s another subject…) All dogs do this sort of thing. Once they make the connection between Behaviors (A) and Rewards (B) they want to get there as quick as they can and so THROW a behavior (one or more) out there, hoping they’ve guessed right and that will be the Shortcut (C) that gets them to their desired goal.
Another way of looking at it is Fifi considers her owner to be sort of a Vending Machine stocked with Doggie Treats. So, when Fifi wants one, she starts doing her tricks, hoping that one of them will push the right button to make a treat drop. This works pretty well for Fifi! It’s soooo cute and it makes us laugh and because the dog has “worked” for it, we give her the treat.
Unfortunately, this makes Fifi less inclined to listen for a cue the next time! Yet, it’s amazingly easy to persuade Fifi to listen. First, we have to stop rewarding behavior we didn’t ask for. Yes the dog “worked” but if your employee shredded a document instead of filing it, you wouldn’t reward him, would you? So, if your dog SITS when you were going to ask for a DOWN, she shouldn’t get a treat. Even if she SITS before you were going to ask for a SIT, she can’t really read your mind and still shouldn’t be rewarded. Reward obedience, not just behavior.
Instead, no matter what trick Fifi “throws” at you, ask for a DIFFERENT one. If she keeps on trying one behavior after another without listening, simply turn away. With your back to her, wait for 10-15 seconds. By doing this you are taking 1) your attention, 2) the treats, and 3) the opportunity to earn those treats away! The Vending Machine’s buttons have left the building! That will make Fifi feel like listening! If she scoots around to face you, simply keep turning your back until the 15 seconds is up, then turn around and try again.
For most dogs, this does the trick. It’s like magic! Fifi suddenly concentrates on what you’re SAYING because you’ve taken away the rewards of guessing — i.e. the short-cut! You may have to repeat the turning-away trick several times, even in the same training session. Certainly, you’ll need to do it every once in a while in different training sessions. Sometimes the smarter the dog and the more willing to work, the more they try to anticipate, especially if we aren’t going fast enough for them.
Anticipation occurs all the time with dogs. Move her leash from the counter to its proper hook next to the door and Fifi frolics, clearly expecting a walk! Looking through your purse jingles the car keys and Fifi runs in her crate with sad, reproachful eyes. Dogs cope with their world by being able to predict what’s going to happen. They learn that A happens before B and jump to conclusion C. Most times, as in these examples, Fifi’s reactions are cute and harmless. The only time ANTICIPATION becomes a problem is when we undercut our own authority by rewarding Fifi for behavior we didn’t ask her to do.