I Mean It!

Cali looking2_side
Are you talking to me?

In my last blog post, Are You Talking to Me?, I said that dogs can tell when we are talking to them and when we really expect their response. They can tell when they can safely ignore us, even when they know that we are talking to them. They read our tone of voice, body language, and many other cues, most of which we are oblivious to.
So, how can we get those smart, calculating dogs to listen?
First, practice an “I mean it” tone. This can be a stern tone practiced in training class or at home; it can simply be a way of addressing your dog where you make it clear that you are completely focused on him — facing him, looking straight at him.
Fortunately, it can also be that note of fear or panic that creeps into your voice when your dog wanders too close to the street or shows too much curiosity about the ray hovering in the water just beyond her nose. In these instances, thankfully, even dogs with relatively poor recall skills will usually respond, coming to you and away from the danger.
Then, add an “emergency cue.” Practicing an “emergency recall” cue, as explained by a very dog-savvy friend, is a great way to build and maintain good listening skills in your dog: Choose a phrase, such as “right now,” and practice it with your recall cue (usually “come” or “come here”) and really, really excellent treats. Remember — your dog gets to decide what counts as a truly excellent treat.
Practice often. Use different tones of voice when you call. Surprise the dog, calling her when you are in some remote corner of the house or yard.
Soon, whenever your dog hears that cue — “Come here right now!” — regardless of tone of voice, she will know that top-quality treats are being dispensed, but only to the quickly responding dog! If you choose the right reward, you’ll see a blur of racing fur when you issue the cue. To get an even faster response, reward only the dog who arrives first, or, if you have only one dog, count to three (or five, or ten, if you have an old or slow dog), and only reward arrivals that beat the countdown clock.
I admit that I have been lazy about practicing this cue lately. Even so, when I add “right now” to a cue, any cue, I get a much-improved response. The association between “right now” and good treats is indelibly inked on Jana’s and Cali’s minds.
That’s partly due to lots of practice when Cali was little. It’s partly due to the fact that I have some really good treats hidden away. But it’s also due to the strength of our relationship — I spend a lot of time with Cali and Jana, and they can read me really well. They definitely know when they have to listen — and when they can push the boundaries a bit.

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