December Ask a Trainer: How to teach your dog to read your mind

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This month Kiki Yablon, KPA CTP, writes about making environmental cues work for you.

For most of us, when we’re introduced to the concept of training, it’s all about telling the dog what to do: sit, lie down, come here, get off, and maybe roll over, wave, or shake. But what most of us really want is a dog who just seems to know what to do.

Good news: That, too, can be trained.

Every behavior your dog performs may not have what’s commonly referred to as a command—a specific request from you. In fact, most of them don’t. But every behavior your dog performs does have a cue—a stimulus in the environment that tells him if he does this behavior NOW, it will likely be reinforced.

Armed with this knowledge and some basic training skills, you too can have one of those brilliant canine mind readers.

An dog’s environment can be external: Sunlight streaming through the window cues “jump up on the bed,” which will likely be reinforced with attention, followed by access to the yard and food, delicious food. (You’re part of your dog’s external environment too.) Or the environment can be internal: Tired legs are a cue to take a load off. A full puppy bladder is a cue to pee. In my house, a rumbling stomach means “go stare intently at Kiki.”

In this way, dogs are always “right”—they’re always doing what the environment has taught them to do by reinforcing their behavior in the past. So when you’re teaching your dog a cue for a behavior, what you’re really doing is teaching a new cue. There’s a very simple process for this:

  • Insert the new cue just before the old cue.
  • Repeat until the dog begins to anticipate the old cue upon hearing the new one.

This is wildly useful. Common uses are to put a verbal cue on a behavior cued by the environment (saying “Potty” just before your dog is about to go), or to teach a verbal cue (e.g., “down”) for a behavior that was initially taught with a visual cue (e.g., bending over to touch the floor).

But it can also be used to turn the environment into cues to do specific behaviors. In other words, it can make it seem like your dog “just knows what to do.”

Here’s just one example:

Sitting “Automatically” at the Curb

As a prerequisite, you’ll need to have sit on cue and have practiced it in a number of incrementally more distracting locations—including at curbs.

  • Slow down as you approach the curb, and gather up your leash, keeping it slack even as you shorten it. This is so your dog can make a choice, but not a fatal one.
  • Just as you reach the last block of sidewalk before the curb (or hit a textured curb ramp—these make great, consistent environmental cues for dogs!), give your existing sit cue.
  • Mark the sit (e.g., with a “yes” or a clicker) and give your dog a treat.*
  • Repeat at each curb, each walk, each day, until your dog begins to sit at curbs without being asked.

Once new cue is in place, you can probably begin to reinforce this behavior by simply cuing the dog to move forward with you.

* For most dogs a treat here will mean a piece of delectable food. For others, quick play with a toy or a good butt scratch may be more valuable. Let your dog’s individual preferences determine what you use. If the behavior isn’t getting stronger, whatever you’re doing probably isn’t sufficiently reinforcing.

This process can also be used to teach your dog to walk calmly past strangers, leave onions or pills you’ve unwittingly dropped on the floor, or even to stay in an unfenced yard.

How many other uses can you think of?