Canine Cogitations from a Local Luminary

We often hear from dog trainers: “Never repeat the command!” However, sometimes repeating a cue offers an easy way to teach our dogs to understand verbal instructions from a distance.

The easiest way to control dogs when off-leash is to teach an emergency sit or down. Compared to an emergency recall, it is much easier to maintain the reliability of an emergency sit or down. Also, it is often not a good idea for your dog to be running if the environment becomes potentially unstable, for example when off-leash dogs, children, riders on horseback, or joggers suddenly appear on the scene. Having an ultra reliable emergency sit (or down) is the easiest way to control your dog safely when off-leash. And of course, good off-leash control means more off-leash walks and romps.

Here’s how to cultivate good off-leash control. When walking your dog off-leash, periodically ask him to sit. Once he does, you have four options:

  1. If the environment is unchanged, immediately tell him to “Go Play”. In fact, this is how we reinforce and maintain a reliable emergency sit. Every time you interrupt the dog’s activity by asking him to sit, you may use “Go Play” as a reward to reinforce the prompt sit.
  2. Have your dog sit and stay while you evaluate any environmental change. I like to hold up my hand for the dog to look at. If he looks at my hand, he is not eyeballing the other dog, or squirrel.
  3. Ask your dog to come and sit and put him on leash if you think the environment is about to become unstable, for example, if you see a group of hikers with dogs in the distance. The recall will likely work because your dog has just demonstrated compliance by promptly sitting on cue.
  4. If you think the environment is about to go to hell in a handbasket, for example, a bunch of children are running towards your dog, run up to your dog and put him on leash.

We want to teach our dogs to sit on cue from a distance, when distracted, and without the use of any training aid other than our voices. Even though the dog may respond reliably when close and especially when on leash, our control over our dogs decreases the farther away from us they are.

So, let’s first test your dog’s Response Reliability. Standing in front of your tethered dog, instruct him to perform five puppy push-ups (yo-yo-ingbetween Sit and Down) using verbal commands only. Repeat any command until the dog eventually responds appropriately. Then repeat the entire procedure standing one yard in front of your dog, two yards away, three yards away, etc. until you are at a distance where your dog no longer responds at all. Film this so that you may go back to score your dog’s (i.e., your) performance. Calculate the Response Reliability Percentage (RR%) for each position change (from Sit to Down and from Down to Sit). RR% = Number of Responses divided by Number of Requests (cues given) x 100.

What you will find is that the Response Reliability % decreases as your distance from your dog increases. In fact, some dogs fail to respond at all if the owner is just one or two yards away from them.

Okay. Let’s say your dog has a RR% of 90% with proximal cues (P) — when you stand right in front of her, but 70% when you are at a distance of one yard (D1), 40% at two yards (D2), 15% at three yards (D3), and 0% at four yards(D4). Now let’s train the dog off-leash. Ask her to sit when you are five yards away. No response. Quickly walk toward your dog repeating the command to sit. (Actually, in effect you are not repeating the same command over and over, because the word “Sit” progressively increases in comprehension – relevance – as you get closer.) When the dog sits, say “Thank you”, take two steps back and ask the dog to “Come” and “Sit”. The dog will likely sit following a single Request because she has just demonstrated compliance (albeit eventual compliance). Say “Go Play” as soon as the dog sits following a single command. Right from the first trial, the dog must always Sit following a single Request before being told to “Go Play”.

So, this is not nagging, because we continue until we have compliance. Then repeat the above sequence over and over. The dog learns that an irrelevant cue (D4) is followed by a minimally relevant cue (D3), which is followed by more relevant cue (D2), which is followed by an even more relevant cue (D1), which is followed by an almost perfectly relevant cue (P). With each trial, the Response Reliability Percentage of the distance cues will increase until they equal the RR% of the proximal cue. With each trial, the dog will sit at a greater distance and after fewer cues. Eventually, your dog will sit at some great distance following a single verbal request. For example, at the end of the SIRIUS Puppy Training video, Omaha sits 90 yards away in Bushrod Park.

Of course, if you really want to test your dog’s cue comprehension, have a friend hold the leash while you stand one yard in front of your dog and turn your back. Then ask your dog to sit. Your friend will say “Good dog, Rover” if he sits and so, if your friend is silent, your dog is not sitting. Keep instructing your dog to sit until he eventually does so and then calculate the RR%. Now, if your dog doesn’t sit promptly following a single command when your back is turned and you are just one yard away from the dog, of course he wouldn’t sit when he is forty yards away chasing a rabbit. Sadly, most people get frustrated and angry when dogs don’t respond when chasing, yet the dog hasn’t even been taught to sit when the owner is just one yard away.

Do the work as outlined above and your enjoyment of life with your dog will vastly improve.

Ian Dunbar is a veterinarian, canine behaviorist, and puppy training pioneer. He is the founder of SIRIUS® Puppy Training; Scientific Director for www.dogstardaily.com; and author of several best-selling books and videos. For more information, visit www.siriuspup.com.