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Cues Not Commands

This week I explore how changing our language can shift our relationship with our dogs and reframe our understanding of training. And I get a little help from my sister Stephanie's dog Bear.

Let's start by changing how we describe communicating with and training our dogs. Rather than issuing commands, for example, we can offer cues, asking our dogs to perform behaviors, not demanding it. This language shift helps us reimagine our relationship with our dogs--no longer ruler and subject but teacher and student or even simply collaborators. Calling what we teach obedience reinforces that ruler-subject relationship. Instead we can simply call it training. The same language change applies to housebreaking. We don’t break our dogs so that they won't pee in the house; we teach them where we want them to go by house or potty training them.

Other language adjustments can further soften how we see our relationship with our dogs. My sister is not Bear's owner. She is his person, his human, his caretaker. She helps him negotiate this human-centric world and gives him plenty of opportunities to express his dog behaviors like foraging, while also keeping him safe. She understands that he is a sentient being who deserves her respect and care.

To help clients understand their dogs better, I encourage them to reframe their thinking about their dog's behavior: it's not bad behavior, it's dog behavior. Sometimes that behavior isn't adaptive to all situations, but it is a form of communication. A dog who barks at the mail carrier and then stops when the mail is delivered performs a natural behavior (one that is reinforced every time the mail carrier leaves!). A dog who barks all day is telling us that something needs to be addressed—whether the issue is boredom, separation anxiety, or fear of something going on inside or outside the house. And a dog who rifles in the trash for toilet paper rolls to shred lets us know what kind of enrichment he might like. If we stop thinking of a dog’s behavior as bad and look at what purpose that behavior serves, we can better communicate with our dogs and more thoroughly meet their needs.

How I think of and talk about my clients matters too. In the training world we sometimes refer to client compliance. But that word perpetuates an unequal relationship between trainer and client: we dictate what they should do and they must follow our instructions. I prefer words like guidance, participation, and engagement—after all, my job is to teach my clients how to train their dogs, so the more my clients can participate in the training, the better things are for everyone.

The next time you'd like your dog to perform a behavior, give her a cue she understands. And if she does something you'd prefer she not do, ask yourself what purpose that behavior serves. Your relationship with your dog will benefit!

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