Clean Up Your Language

Thursday, March 01, 2018 2:00 AM | Front & Finish (Administrator)

Written by Holly Furgason

I watch a lot of handlers with their dogs. I watch their runs, their warm ups and training sessions when I can. Observing other handlers not only gives me information about that person and their technique but training in general. At a Rally trial I attended recently in another part of the state, I noticed an issue that played out over and over again. Though I’ve seen it elsewhere many times, it stuck out around new people in a new place competing with new rules. It has to do with our use of words. Since Rally handlers are allowed to talk more, we have to be very sure that what we're saying is going to help our dogs in the ring and not hinder them.

Here's the issue- many times handlers use one word or phrase to mean two or more different things that seem related to humans but are obviously very different to the dog. A prime example is the “with me” command. In one run, a handler told her dog “with me” meaning “get into heel position” several different times in several contexts. Then, for the WCRL bonus sign “Call Front Sidestep R/L” she used it again.

What she meant it to mean for the bonus sign was “when I move to the right, keep your position and stay with me.” A person would have understood that with no problem. Based on the dog’s interpretation of the command- swinging his butt around and sitting at her side- it meant “get into heel position.” And why not? That’s what the dog was being rewarded and praised for the entire run and probably most of their training sessions.

Dogs don’t use words naturally; the only meaning of a word or phrase dogs learn is the one we teach them. But the meaning is useless unless it has a physical action connected to it since the ability to use language abstractly is not wired into a dog’s brain. Every command we give our dog has to have a physical action. If you’re not sure what that action is, the dog definitely won’t know what to do so we need to be very careful about the meanings (physical actions) of the words and phrases we use with our dogs in the ring.

In the example above, the handler could have easily trained a specific command for that sign (a variation of which is now used in the new AKC Master signs #304 and 305) during training. Personally, I have used the command "front" because I've taught my dog that no matter what position she is in and what position I am in, when I say "front" I mean that she is to come to the front position as quickly and efficiently as possible. I'm sure there are other words that would be just as effective if trained properly to mean only that one action.

One of the commands that I find people have a hard time with is the “leave it” command. I ask people what they want their dogs to do when they hear that command and I get a lot of answers- stop trying to get it, don’t think about, don’t worry about it, just leave it alone. All of those are good answers but we need to come up with a physical action- one that the dog can do and be rewarded for- that gives the word meaning for their dog. I like to use “turn your head away from it” (“it” being whatever it is) but you could also require the dog to look at you, walk away from it or just stop moving forward towards it. How you teach that physical action is up to you but you must have a physical action defined for it to make sense to the dog.

On the other side of the coin is the use of many words or phrases to mean the same thing- come, come here, come on, get over here or just the dog's name. This isn’t as bad since dogs can learn to do the same action using many cues.

We want to be sure that we are making this as simple as possible for our dogs especially in the ring. We don’t want our dogs to have to stop and try to put together the puzzle of what we are saying. We want it to be clear and exact. It sounds obvious but watch the next time you’re at a trial or in class. Watch the other handlers and then video and watch yourself. I think you’ll be surprised at how ambiguous we can be in our training language and it will give a lot to work on in upcoming training sessions.

To continue discussions on topics in her column, Holly has started a new Mastering Rally Facebook Group.  To join just point your web browser to bit.ly/MstrRly

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