Dog News

Are you giving your dog unintentional cues?

by Nancy Freedman-Smith

Life With Dogs is reader-supported. We may earn a small commission through products purchased using links on this page.

The photo of my Collie Finnegan looking at me was taken while I was walking off leash. One minute the dog was romping full tilt  with the other dogs, the next minute he was glued to my side in a near perfect competition  heel.  What I did to call my dog to  heel was totally unintentional.  Can you guess what  it may have been?

In our every day life we give our dogs clues as to what we are  doing and what they should do throughout a day. Dogs are experts at association. Things like opening a refrigerator , or a rustling plastic bag  come to mean one thing and one thing alone to many dogs, and that of course is food!   Many cues are obvious to both us and the dogs. Picking up keys, or leashes, or putting on our shoes often do mean someone is going out.  Whether we meant to or not, these are things that we have taught our dog to associate.    These are just a few hints that we give our dogs during the course of the day. Observational skills are important to dog trainers, and more and more I have been noticing how people give dogs subtle cues that often they are not aware they are doing.

We owe  it to our dogs to be clear communicators.  To a dog learning about our world, and  interacting with us is not unlike playing the children’s  game of Hot and Cold.

There was a time when  I was having difficulty getting Finn to down when it was his turn to be demo dog in my group training classes.   Like many dogs, Finney was acing downs everywhere but class.  I know all too well how dogs keep us humble and really all I could do was laugh while the dog just stood staring at me like I was from another planet.  Turned out I had taught Finney  the cue for down included the verbal cue “Finn, ready, down” Once I realized this, it was simple for me to fade the first 2 words.

Often in class, I see people subtly cue their dogs by nodding their heads to get their dogs to lay down.  When I point this out, they are almost always completely unaware.     One of the most obvious cues I often see are the way people stop and stomp or scuff their foot when they are teaching their dogs to automatically sit when they stop. I often teach this as an exaggerated cue in the beginning and then fade it later, but again, usually people have no idea that they are doing it.

I catch people in class giving subtle cues all the time without realizing it.  Just last week a woman took a huge breath right before she released her dog from stay.  And she wondered why her dog was breaking  just before she gave the verbal cue each and every time!    Think your dog knows the verbal cue for sit? Try asking for a sit while sitting down, or turned around, or from across a room using no hand gestures. Think your dog is downing just from your verbal cue? Try your hands at your side, your eyes straight ahead and no bending at the waist.  Can you tell your dog to stay and pick something up off the floor, or will your dog think that is a cue for “come”?  I could go on, and I am sure you can think of a few that you have observed in yourself and in others.

I would love to hear about them!

When I asked my friends what cues they gave their dogs, I got a few interesting answers.  Jenny’s dogs know that when she brushes her hair, it means she is going out.  Marie told me that her dogs think they are going out every time she shuts her lap top.  When Kathy opens the vitamin bottle at night, her dog Buddy runs upstairs to bed. My old dog  Charlee would plop her self at the top of the stairs and watch out the window for company when I cleaned the house fast. She knew that meant someone was coming.  That still makes me laugh.   She also took her own cues from the vacuum cleaner. It took me far too long  to realize that when Charlee  barked at the vacuum it was only after I had stepped on the button and lowered the handle. She was play bowing back to the electric cleaning dog.  How funny is that? One would think an ace dog trainer  like myself would have picked up on that sooner.

If you have a demand barker, stop and think about the pattern of when the barking starts and what the reward might be for the dog. Usually it is attention. Are you giving it unintentionally?  One of the most common times that dogs learn to bark is when people are on the phone.  Think about it!

The unintentional cue for “heel!” that I gave Finney will be posted  in the comment section tomorrow.