I've said it here before: specific words don't really matter in dog training because dogs don't speak English (or French, or Swahili or any other human language). 

Dogs learn to associate certain sounds with certain actions for which they've been rewarded or punished. For example, after a number of repetitions, Rover figures out that when his human makes the sound "sit", he (Rover) has better get his fanny on the floor. How many repetitions it will take depends on a number of factors, including the way the connection of the sound and the behavior is made by the two-legged member of the team, how innately rewarding the behavior is to the dog, how bright and how willing the individual dog is, how persistent the human is, and more. This is pretty common sense stuff, but many people still persist in believing that there is some kind of magic in finding just the right word that will make Rover perform. And if that magic word doesn't work, these folks think, it's because they didn't say it loud enough. Or often enough. Which nonsense brings me to this topic, the judicious use of words.

I'm not a clicker trainer, but I certainly appreciate and use the concept of a conditioned reinforcer in dog training. By this I mean a sound which tells the dog he has done the right thing and that a reward will be forthcoming. In clicker training, the dog begins by learning that the click sound means a food reward is coming. In making this initial connection between sound and reward, the food comes immediately after the click. I have heard this referred to as "loading the clicker", and it's a fabulous idea - if your dog will stay in the same room with the clicker. Unfortunately, none of my dogs has been willing to stay in the room with what they consider an upsetting sound, no matter what kind of treats I have, which has made this tool less than effective for me. I must admit, I've never started them with the clicker as puppies, and I admit I've successfully used the clicker with Zeb (after harassing him for months until he figured out the clicker wasn't going to eat him). So, is this an anti-clicker diatribe? Heavens, no. I've watched some really skilled clicker trainers (Julie Daniels comes to mind) mark tiny pieces of behavior like the arc of a jump with awe-inspiring accuracy, but I'm not willing - or most likely able - to develop the high level of skill needed to train that way for the type of precision work I'm looking for in the obedience ring. Instead, I prefer to rely on my voice. And my word for positive reinforcement is "Yes". When my dog hears the magic "Yes", he knows a treat or other reward is coming. I prefer "Yes" to "Good" because I like the little hissing sound of "Yes", and because we tend to throw too many "Goods" around indiscriminately in training. Obviously, you can use any word or sound you'd like to convey the message to Rover that a behavior is about to be rewarded. Some folks choose an unusual word or sound, which is fine, provided you can remember which one you chose. The subject of how to reward and how to get Rover to wait longer and longer for a food or toy reward will be the focus of a future column. Right now I just want to focus on the words.

So now we know how to give a positive marker like "Yes". What about a negative marker? I don't want to get into a discussion here about whether a dog can be trained using only positive reinforcement. My experience is that there are some behaviors that can be trained without any negative feedback to the dog, but I have yet to see a dog trained without any aversives who wasn't obnoxious on a day-to-day basis, and who was reliable in the obedience ring. What constitutes an aversive? An aversive is anything the dog perceives as unpleasant. Now, don't start thinking about whips and chains here. For many dogs, something unpleasant can be as simple as the handler turning his back on an undesirable behavior. I was giving a seminar on handling a number of years ago, in an area of the country where heavy physical corrections were the only training method used. As I demonstrated a retrieve with one of my dogs, the dog anticipated the command and went after the dumbbell before I gave the command. I automatically turned my back to let him know he'd done something wrong. A woman in the audience asked, "I know you've told us this was a handling seminar rather than a training one, but can you tell me, was that a correction for this dog?" I acknowledged that it was, and threw the dumbbell again. This time, the dog waited for the command, making me proud - and relieved - it's never fun to have your dog show you up when giving a seminar. Aversives can be verbal or physical. As above, a physical aversive doesn't necessarily involve touching the dog. An aversive could also be withholding a food reward or toy. Most often in training, people use verbal aversives, the most common one being, "No!"

What's wrong with "No!" you may ask. Well, inherently there's nothing wrong with it. The problem is that most often it is said emotionally (NO!) rather than to give the information: that's not what I wanted. "No" is also over-used with most dogs, especially those you've raised from babyhood. Remember that T-shirt that says, "My name's Puppy No-No, What's yours:"? "No", like "good", is applied indiscriminately to all types of behaviors from housebreaking, to eating illicit items to failing to sit straight. I much prefer a quiet "Oops" or an "Uh-oh" to convey the aversive message to the dog. It's much easier to say these phrases quietly and calmly than it is to say "No" in a tone appropriate for training. Another option is "Wrong", again said calmly and quietly. My goal in using one of these terms is to let the dog know that what he's done is not what I want, and that we'll be making another attempt. I'm just trying to convey information; not punish or intimidate the dog, which can turn some dogs off and make them quit trying. My dogs also learn the phrase "Almost", which means they made a good attempt, but it wasn't quite up to my specifications. If we are working on a behavior I believe the dog knows, "Almost" and Uh-oh" both mean no treat will be forthcoming.

Do I ever say "No!" Of course I do, but I try really hard to save the big NO for major crimes like running off across the park to chase a squirrel or going up to a strange dog without permission. My hope is that when my dogs hear "NO!" they take it seriously and stop what they are doing.

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