Thursday, August 26, 2010

Talk to the Hand

Anyone who’s worked with me will tell you that I emphasize a “less is more” approach to teaching their dogs what it is they want from them. That includes certain rules like not repeating instructions; no need to say, “Sit,…sit,…sit…” unless your instruction for ‘sit’ happens to be, “Sit,…sit,…sit…” I also like to incorporate hand signals with verbal cues. There are a number of reasons for this. First, since an underlying theme of training is to cultivate more focus from your dog, hand signals give dogs a compelling reason to look at us. I imagine my dogs having an inner dialogue of sorts, “Hmmm,…pretty sure when he throws that hand up he wants me to lie down. Pretty sure if I do that some string cheese will happen.” Then “Woomp!” down they go. I’ve also found that when I’m talking on the phone and one or more of my dogs become vocal, I can give them a ‘down’ hand signal without a break in the conversation and get quiet, focused dog in a ‘down’. The least important reason (but still fun, if not indulgent) is the vanity component. Dogs that respond to both verbal and vocal cues aren’t something you see everyday at the park. It seems like something special. Recently however, I’ve become aware of another important reason for teaching both hand and vocal cues. It has to do with having a 2/3rds geriatric brood of family dogs. More on that in a minute.

Last night I was working with Mary and Eric, proud owners of Toby, a beautiful Bassett Hound they’d adopted from a Bassett Rescue organization. Toby’s issues circled around a fear aggressive response to people coming into his home. Our goal was to incorporate counter conditioning and desensitization into a regimen of basic training. It’s one thing to habituate a dog to an individual. Dogs with fear aggressive behaviors can make that adjustment fairly quickly in some cases. The real goal is to expand on that idea so that dogs with these types of issues are responding in general to anyone coming through the door in a fundamentally different way. Toby’s lesson saw a important change in the way he responded to the door with Mary and Eric taking turns responding to a knock at the door by giving Toby the opportunity to capitalize on a reward by going to a spot they’d designated for ‘down’ and ‘stay’ while they answered the door. Hand signals played a roll in this exercise since we’re emphasizing quiet vs. the loud din of a howling Bassett Hound. Mary and Eric confessed their doubts about Toby’s ability to make the right decision. He seemed happy to surprise them choosing the conditioned response they’d been teaching him over his usual unconditioned response of howling and charging the door. In the midst of this important break through Eric asked if my dogs were trained to behave this way when someone was at the door. Louie and Archie have been but Eric’s question reminded me they’d do well to have a refresher course. For Miles, new to our brood, I’d be proofing his ‘stay’ just as they’d been doing with Toby.

Bright and early this morning I commenced door training exercises, alternating Louie and Miles with Archie going solo. I wanted to take advantage of Louie’s knowledge of this behavior to yield some learned behavior for Miles who quickly began to pattern what Louie was being rewarded for. In the interest of full disclosure, Louie and Miles are acclimated to each other while Archie and Miles continue to experience each other on leashed walks and through a baby gate.

Archie, who’s health issues have been chronicled in earlier posts, has limited vision but very good hearing turned 13 years old on July 9th. Louie will be 15 years old in October and while otherwise healthy and lively has suffered some hearing loss in his later years. Herein lies my epiphany with respect to hand signals and vocal cues. Early in their lives with both good hearing and eyesight, hand signals helped keep them focused and quiet while my son Keir, then an infant, slept. Now 8 years old, I’m confident Keir could sleep through an invasion (but not a dinner bell) Louie and Archie on the other hand are adjusting to old age; their ability to respond to both vocal and visual cues has come full circle with Louie responding best to hand signals and Archie to verbal cues.

While learning to adjust to the changing needs of an aging dog(s) is often the last thing on the minds of dog owners with dogs in their prime this will be part of that dialogue thanks to a timely question. Thanks Eric.