Up until now, you’ve perfected your positions—Sit and Down—separately,
which is the most efficient installation strategy. There is now another piece
you can add: teaching your dog to tell the verbal commands apart, which is
called verbal cue discrimination in the training biz. However patently obvious it
is to you that “sit” means Sit and “down” means Down, once you start mixing
it up rather than practicing the same sequential order of behaviors, most dogs
will be guessing!
If perfect verbal discrimination between Sit, Down and Stand doesn’t
matter to you, go ahead and skip to Chapter 9, “Taking it on the
Road,” on page 93.
Below is a series of position changes. A Sit from a Down is a change, as is a
Down from a Stand. From now on, there’s no longer any plain old Sit or plain
old Down. Each now has a setup position. So there are four possible changes
1. Sit from a Stand
2. Sit from a Down
3. Down from a Sit
4. Down from a Stand
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84 Maintaining and Improving
Are You Telling Me That After All
That Training She’s Guessing?!
Yes! Although a small percentage of dogs will, on the first discrimination
exercise, get all or most changes correct on the initial verbal signal (there is
a famous dog in Germany, for instance, who is a verbal-discrimination
Einstein), the vast majority of dogs will be guessing, especially on all changes that start from a standing setup.
It’s as though the verbal cue were just blah-blah to the dog, who then
thinks, “Okay, I’m supposed to either sit or lie down here so, let’s see, how
about this one…” and lies down, regardless of the fact that the content of
your blah-blah held the information the dog needed to guess correctly. We
humans are strongly predisposed to attend to details of verbal utterances,
and it is difficult for us to imagine that dogs, who are so like us in their emotions, are simply not much about language. Dogs can learn over time that
certain words predict important events like “walkies” and “wanna go out?”
But in word discrimination tasks, like position changes, where your dog
would dearly love to get it right ASAP and get paid, you get a glimpse at
how genuinely hard it is for her. Before learning to focus on the content of
verbal cues, most dogs make guesses based on one or more of the following
1. Latest trick syndrome—What have I had a lot of pay for lately? If out of
the last eighty times your dog has been paid, fifty-four were for down
from a stand, the dog may guess and lie down from a stand—kind of
“When in doubt, go with what she seems to want lately.” This is why when
you teach a new trick to a dog, and so have recently practiced it a lot, the
dog trots out that behavior regardless of what cue you give her.
2. Usual order of events—Dogs are very good at discerning patterns. If you
practice the same sequence of Sit, Down, Sit, Stand, Down, Sit, the dog
will learn that order and eventually go through the lot of them after the
first cue. This is why you’ll often see a dog run through her entire repertoire on one command. Someone says “Sit” and the dog sits, then gives
a paw, barks, and plays dead. This is also why I make the order as random
as I can in the practice sequence table.
3. Preferred behaviors—For reasons that are as individual as the bodies
and personalities of dogs, some dogs just like sitting more than lying
down or vice versa, and this can bias them in discrimination tasks.
Position Discrimination I
1. Practice your dog’s changes in the order given in the chart below. For
each change give the verbal cue, wait a full second or two, and then
give the hand signal.
2. For this first round we will pay for correct response on either the verbal
or the hand signal—in other words, even if your dog does nothing on
the verbal or does the wrong position, you praise and pay after helping
her out with the hand signal, always feeding for position, which is especially important now.
3. Because we didn’t teach Stand—almost nobody uses this command in
pet dog training—where you see reset to a stand, simply move around
to get your dog standing to set her up for the next change.
Push when your dog can run through the entire sequence in the
table with no errors. Remember, for now performance on either the
verbal or hand signal is okay.
Position Discrimination II
1. Practice the sequence in the above table once again.
2. Give the verbal cue and wait a few seconds.
3. If your dog performs the correct change, praise and reward.
4. If she performs the wrong change or does nothing, say “Too bad,’ and
then turn around and walk away a few steps before trying again.
5. Keep careful track of how many she’s getting correct on the verbal:
Position Discrimination III: Troubleshooting Weaknesses
1. Take a look at how your dog did on the two discrimination exercises you
just did to identify any weak changes. (For example, the fictitious dog
with the partial records above seems to be weak at Sit from a Down.)
2. Write down your dog’s weak changes, if any.
3. Try a set of this change only for a verbal command.
4. If she gets a two or fewer on five practicing this change on her own,
drop back to a very small hand signal given two seconds after your verbal
Now do your Stick set, but this time, keep track of how many your dog
does correctly on the small hand signal and also how many times she jumps the
prompt and sits early on the verbal cue during that two-second interval. This
means you are still paying Sits that require the hand signal but keeping track of
how many your dog would have gotten, had the requirement been for her to sit
As you can see, the dog above is five for five on the small hand signal, which
technically means Push. But only once did the dog jump the hand signal (sit
before the hand signal is given) and sit on the verbal cue. If the trainer Pushes
to verbal, it’s very likely the next set will be a one or maybe two out of five:
too hard. Shopping is the term I use for keeping track of what the dog would
have gotten on a future criteria step. You are officially rewarding a Sit from a
Down for small hand signals but shopping for verbals, which is your planned next
step. It is not always possible to shop, as some exercises do not allow for aboveand-beyond performance. But an exercise such as performance for a verbal cue
followed by a hand signal allows you to see how many she would have had for
the verbal alone. Think of it as a crystal ball peek at whether your next Push
is likely to work or not.
So, what does a good trainer do with the above? The dog is nailing the
small hand signal but it seems premature to require a performance for verbal
(you’ll end up dropping again). A good trainer would now split, do a set that is
between the difficulty of these two. The most obvious split option is an even
tinier hand signal. Go ahead and try that for your problem change, shopping
for how many the dog gets on the verbal alone.
Another is to extend the time between your verbal cue and the hand signal, to give the dog a longer pause before you say “Too bad” and walk off. This
pause is called a latency hold or limited hold and is abbreviated LH.
Yet another split is to alternate within the set between verbal cues that are
followed by small hand signals and verbal cues that are not. The example
immediately following extends the latency hold to five seconds and alternates
between these hand signal trials and verbal-only trials. Here is an example of
how your dog might score on this kind of split set.