Saturday, September 4, 2010

Teach Your Dog To Speak English


My daughter will be leaving in a few months to study abroad. She has spent the past few years learning to read, write and speak the language of the country she will be living in. We are looking forward to visiting her at some point in time but are curious how we will navigate a country where we don't speak the language. How will we find our way around, ask questions, find our hotel, order in restaurants and just plain communicate with people. Thinking about the language barrier made me realize once again, this is what it's like for our dogs when they enter our homes. Afterall, dogs don't speak english, it's a second language for them.

You're probably wondering how do we teach a dog to speak english? The answer is quite simple, through training. We teach a dog to pair together a single word command with a single behavior. They can quickly learn that putting their rear end on the ground is SIT and laying their body on the floor is DOWN and runing towards us is COME. By using positive reinforcement methods we reward the appropriate behavior, making it more likely that the dog will repeat it. There is no need for punishment, that only stresses out the dog and teaches nothing in the process. Would you like to be dropped in a foreign country seeking guidance and when you fail to respond properly to a request or question a hand reaches out and gives you a physical correction or you get a harsh verbal repremand. It's doubtful that this technique would improve your ability to commnunicate but would most likely make you less likely to want to communicate with anyone else.

To teach a dog to speak english we need to keep it simple, use one word cues, mark the correct response as it's happening so that the dog knows exactly what he is being rewarded for. For those of us who use Clicker Training we use the CLICK to mark the correct response followed by a small food reward. While food tends to be a dogs highest value reward, toys, play, petting and praise can be used too.

I routinely hear the following complaints from frustrated families:

"Fido doesn't pay attention"
"Fido won't come when called"
"Fido knows what he should do but chooses to ignore us"
"Fido doesn't listen to spite us, he's such a hard head"
"He Knows what SIT means, he did it last week"

Teaching a dog to speak english takes ALOT of training and repetition, could you learn a foreign language in a few sessions, I know I couldn't. We have to practice each word/skill in a variety of locations so that the dog can generalize. We need to allow our dog time to learn and yes make mistakes without fear of repremand.

The next time you're feeling frustrated with your dogs ability to listen to you, ask yourself a few questions:

Have I taught my dog what this cue/word means?
Have we practiced a few hundred times?
Have I rewarded correct responses?

Before you write your dog off as a hard head or lost cause sign up for a group class. With the help of your interpretor/trainer you'll be communicating with your dog in no time.

I've realized that my daughter and I have the same job, we both teach ESL, English As A Second Language, we just have different students :)

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