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Dogs Don’t Speak English

Ashley sitting in a chair with a light gray blanket over her legs. She is leaning over to give a pointy-eared merle dog a kiss

By Guide Dog Mobility Instructor Ashley Nunnelly

Wouldn’t it be nice if they did? If I found a magic lamp, one of my three wishes would be to be able to talk to my dogs. Even if it was for only 10 minutes. I would explain a few things:

  • It’s for your own good that I am cutting your nails, I promise! If you sit still, it will be easier for both of us.
  • I put the blankets on the couch over your favorite lying down spots for a reason. Would you kindly choose to aim for them when you lie down on the couch to catch all of your hair instead of lying directly beside them?
  • I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, and being with you makes me happy.

I haven’t found a magic lamp yet, so in the meantime I will continue to shape my skills at communicating with my dogs without English. How do I do this? Let’s talk training!

We’ll start with the basics.

All organisms do what works. Behavior serves a function.

Ashley's back is to the camera. There is a golden retriever puppy peeking over her shoulder, looking at the camera. Ashley has her head turned toward the puppy.What does this mean? Think about the things that you do throughout your day. Last night you probably set an alarm. Why? You have been rewarded for waking up on time to go to work—perhaps by feeling calm while getting ready in the morning or by being praised in your employee review for always being punctual. Or perhaps you have been punished by your boss having a talk with you about being late for the third time in a row.

You do what works. You set that alarm. You’re hungry, so you make breakfast. You filled your gas tank yesterday, so you got to work right on time—smooth sailing. Think about every tiny choice you make throughout the day. Most likely there is some sort of an outcome for you that makes you happy or serves some sort of function.

Here is what to know about a behavior and the function that it serves:

Antecedent Behavior  Consequence

Let me explain.

Antecedent: This is what prompts a behavior to happen. Example: my stomach growls.

Behavior: This is what the learner (we’re ALWAYS learning) does. Example: I say “Tom, [my boyfriend] I’m hungry.”

Consequence: Consequence has a negative connotation, but let me assure you that in this context, it just means something happens! That thing could be good or bad. In my example’s case: Tom replies, “Well, what are you hungry for?” Then he suggests a few options.

Ashley stands in an airport seating area with a man standing next to her. He is holding up a black lab in Leader Dog harness. The dog is giving Ashley a kiss.In this example, I received a positive outcome. My partner helped me decide what to eat and suggested his willingness to help find food. But think about it—maybe Tom’s behavior is driven by previous experience too. He has learned in the past that I am happy when he responds in this manner, and he has learned that he has a finite amount of time before I get truly “hangry” and the consequences of his choice of response turn unpleasant (if you’re reading this, Tom, I am sorry and I love you!).

All behaviors serve a function to determine what the consequence of the behavior is. And we, as trainers, partners, pet owners and parents, have the ability to manipulate both the antecedent and the consequence—therefore changing the learner’s behavior.

Science has shown that by far, positive reinforcement changes behavior the fastest and with the most permanent outcomes. Why? Because learners do what works for them! If the outcome for me opening the freezer is receiving chocolate gelato, by George, I’m going to do it a lot.

So, think about all the things I listed above that I want to tell my dogs.

  • Sit still for your nails and it won’t be so bad! – How can I change this? Is making my dog stay still earning him a really fantastic “consequence”? I’m going to start slow and give him a positive consequence each time. Elliott (my dog) lets me touch his paw—he gets a piece of hot dog. Elliott lets me close my hand around his paw—hot dog. Elliott lets me lift his paw—hot dog. Elliott lets me hold the clippers near his lifted up paw—hot dog. Elliott lets me clip a nail while holding clippers with his lifted paw—HOT DOG! Every step of the process into clipping the nail, I told my learner, “This WORKS for you!” He doesn’t understand that I may accidentally cut too short if he squirms. He just knows that squirming gets him away faster. But I can manipulate the behavior by manipulating the consequence and teach him to be happy to give me his paw—because he’s going to earn himself a hot dog!
  • Aim for the blanket when you jump on the couch. – There are a lot of ways I can approach this point. My first choice would be to use a clicker to capture and reinforce the behavior “aim for blanket” (I’ll be talking about clicker training in a future post!). Another thing that I could do is make sure that his attempts to aim for the blanket are reinforced. How? Cuddles happen when you’re on the blanket. Treats happen when you’re on the blanket. Pets and praise happen when you’re on the blanket. Sure, you are still comfortable and happy on the couch if you are off the blanket. But if you are on the blanket, even BETTER things happen! So why would you not aim for that jackpot every time?
  • I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, and being with you makes me happy. – They know. And I know they know. I know this because when I am doing a training session with my dogs and I have been carefully choosing which behavior to reinforce, they have played my silly human game. They played with me to guess which tiny movement they did this time earned them that treat. When we have a breakthrough and I smile at them and laugh and cheer, in response they wag their tail and do a doggie smile and squint their eyes at me. I know that the two of us are playing and enjoying the learning together! How silly is it that we humans like it when they put their butt on the ground after we make the weird, human sound “sit”? “Okay, my nice human. Whatever makes you happy, weirdo.” Consequence of doing what I say=treat! Or praise or a belly rub where we two are just enjoying each other’s company.

Ashley appears to be sitting on a gray carpeted floor, speaking to a yellow lab in Leader Dog harness. The dog's tongue is hanging out and its tail is blurry from wagging.I work hard with my home dogs (spoiled rotten) and my work dogs (Leader Dogs in training) to make all training a game. I want to see my dogs WANT to do what they are doing. I accomplish this by making the behavior that I want have a positive consequence for my dogs. I make sure that the “good” (I say good in quotes because the human definition of good varies greatly from if your genie asked a dog what their definition was) behaviors have really positive outcomes! Food, play, cuddles just how they want it; whatever the motivating consequence that drives that learner is, I make it happen.

Behavior—what ALL of us organisms do, whether person or dog—is always a choice.

And do you know what job is completely full of choices? Being a Leader Dog. Those dogs make hundreds to thousands of choices every day.

For the next step in creating those choices, check back for my next blog!

Cover photo by Andrea Beltran

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