November 26, 2013

Semantics: A Sit by Any Other Name

In adding to Ruby's behavior repertoire, one of my biggest stumbling blocks is figuring out what cue to use, and sticking to it.  Being a great lover of words, perhaps I give it too much thought, but I want the cue to make sense, be easy to say, easy to remember, distinct and consistent.  Some tricks are even on hold until I decide what to name them!

"Sit" is an easy one.  "Down" is pretty self-explanatory, too, but one must remember to use a different cue when you want the dog to get down from the couch or from jumping up.  "Off" is a great cue for that.  I chose "paw" over "shake," because I usually don't actually shake the paw.  Ruby has a trick where she sits in a begging position with her front paws resting on my offered forearm, and this is called "arm." "Roll over" - also easy.  Some teach their dogs to "play dead" - I find this a little morbid and think that even if she doesn't know the meaning in real life, at least she can play the part of "relax" by laying flat with her head down.  For wave we use "bye-bye" in a squeaky voice - I think the voice is a must! 

My first naming mistake came when I was trying to teach Ruby to give me her tug toy by saying "let go."  A few days in, I realized that would not work since I also use "let's go" to move off formally on-leash! I thought I should distinguish between giving up something that I'm hanging on to also from dropping something to the floor ("drop it," which we've made very little progress with) - "give" is an option, of course, but it sounds a little like "leave it" to me (although the goal is similar, so is there any harm in it?).  I finally settled on "release!" but if I'm being honest I probably only remember to say "release" about half the time, instead reverting to our original confusing  "let go" command which she seems to respond better to, anyway!

While working to capture the play-bow behavior, I dismissed "bow" as sounding too like "down," and initially decided to call it "yoga" for its resemblance to the downward dog position, but because Ruby does it with such exuberance I think it needs a less meditative descriptor.   "Take a bow," perhaps?

You know that cute butt-in-the-air, pretzelly thing dogs do when they greet you, or with a toy in their mouth? Like a play-bow with a Cirque du Soleil-style twist?  My grandfather had an Airedale, Juno, who did it on the command of "do your ostrich" - how perfect is that? It's something I hope to perfect with Ruby, too.

My childhood dog, Poppy (an Airedale mix, they were a family favorite), dug on command ("dig, dig, dig!").  She was the most excellent fort excavator and salamander-finder.  Since Ruby greatly enjoys digging in the one small strip of dirt on my patio, this is not something I plan to encourage!

Even though I've taught "leave it" by encircling Ruby with a ring of kibble while she holds a watchful down-stay, this useful command slips my mind out in the real world.  When her nose is glued to the ground on a rabbit trail, I so often call "Ruby!" "No!" "Come on!" before remembering her "leave it" command, which sometimes actually works to snap her out of terrier delirium and returns her to my side, probably thinking "why didn't you say so?"

The recall is one of the most important things to train, and our obedience school teacher (before we flunked out, a post for another time) suggested that we use "here" instead of "come."  We do not have many opportunities to work on recall off-leash outside the house, and as emphasized in The Power of Positive Dog Training, I don't want to ask for it if I'm not reasonably certain Ruby will in fact come running, but I have settled on "here" as our command.  Recently though, I've noticed that I say "here" a lot when I'm handing out treats - a carrot end from my salad preparation, for example.  Is this necessarily a bad thing?   She then associates the word "here" with yummy treats, but I can't help feeling I'm muddying the cue waters.

Ruby's current vocabulary list is here if you're interested - I've limited it to cues that illicit tricks/behaviors - I've no doubt she knows a great many more words, such as "cookie," "walk," "car," and "stop pestering the poor old kitty" (notice that one is not on her list, though...) 

What are some creative cues you've used, or some trouble you've run in to picking or sticking to just the right word? 


  1. I guess the most creative cue I've used isn't a word at all. When teaching Blueberry to 'come' - I also pound the left side of my shoulder/chest area and it makes a pretty loud thumping noise. That noise is what she is quicker to respond to than the 'come'.

    I also don't like 'play dead' and instead use 'take a nap' - which is a bit wordy but I couldn't think of anything else at the time. Now I am wishing I had thought of relax since that is way easier to say! I tend to use a lot of non-verbal cues along with words because I know that at some point B will most likely have diminished hearing as she ages and I will still need to communicate with her.

    Ruby sure knows a lot of commands!

    1. I use non-verbal cues, too, and encounter the same troubles! Cues for "down," "stay," and "touch" are all variations of open hand and I worry it gets confusing for her.

      I like the idea of another sound instead of a word for recall - I wish I was a better whistler!

  2. Years ago my Doberman had the very best trick. He ran full speed out of whatever room he was in when I said "Republican." Teaching it took some time and was a result of teaching him a few French words...Long story short, he would also bolt out of the room if someone said Reptilian. Still works. All this to say, I cant wait for the tricks Ruby will be doing a couple of years from now.

    1. That is a party trick, indeed!

      Ruby's leg-lift is just begging for a humorous, probably inappropriate cue.


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