I can’t tell you how many times in my behaviorist career I have watched a client (human) shout “sit”, or “down” or “come” at their dog and the dog just stares at them. The client tells me the dog is stupid or un-trainable. I then take hold of the lead do some basic training and in a few minutes the dog’s butt reliably hits the ground each time I say “sit”. Do I have a special power? No. What I know is that dog’s don’t understand English, Spanish, Russian or any other human language. I don’t care if the dog is the smartest Boarder Collie, Rotti, Poodle, you pick your favorite brainy canine breed, they don’t understand. Dogs can associate a consistent sound as a cue to execute a specific behavior.
Many people believe dogs, especially their dog learn and understand language like children do. They believe if they keep saying something the dog will eventually understand it and do what is asked. No way! Think how you would feel if I kept shouting “Gremple” at you in an increasingly angry and irritated tone. You would feel anxious and frustrated. That is what your dog feels too and will do something to relieve the resulting stress. You can only expect your dog to perform a behavior by voice command once they have associated the sound of the command with the physical action. In another blog I will talk about how the chasm between verbal command and behavior is crossed. The thing to understand is dogs don’t understand language, they associate sound or visual signal with an action to get a reward. You can teach a dog all the behaviors you want with a whistle, clicker or anything that makes sound. Actually, you don’t even need sound, it can be done with visual signals, again content for another blog.
Let me conclude this blog with an example story. I went to a client’s home for a consult. The man said his dog would not learn commands. After a bit of small talk I asked him to show me what he does to get the dog to do something. He went to the sliding glass door and shouted “come” to the dog in the backyard. The dog started to excitedly run around the yard. The man yelled “come, come, come”, again and again louder and louder. He said “see what I mean.” The man then went out the door and chased the dog. Finally he dragged the dog in and said, “see my dog is stupid.” I told him I disagree and the dog is a genius and learned “come” perfectly. It’s just that “come” means play the game chase me around the yard. In just a few minutes I showed the owner how to get the dog to come to him on command. Since the dog already associated “come” with play, we used a different command.