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Training and Language Planning
by Jodi Williams

Training your pet early and consistently is key to building a secure and trusting relationship for your pet in its new environment, but most don't realize that their language plan (or lack of plan) is just as crucial.

Believe it or not, animals don't speak our language.

I know, surprising, isn't it?

basic commands Often, new pet owners make the simple mistake of not being clear about what they expect from their pet. This lack of clarity causes unnecessary problems and frustrations. Teaching your pet commands becomes more effective if the words you use to communicate your your pet's desired response are clear and consistent.

Most of us have a fundamental pet-language that we've learned through past pet ownership and through our exposure to media presentations of pet owners. Think about it - what do people say when they want an animal to stop and put its hind-quarters on the ground? They say "sit". The most common commands are "sit", "stay", and "come". I think we all have a pretty clear idea of what these mean and how we expect pets to respond. Not surprisingly, these three basic commands are also the most important of all. Every pet that wanders outdoors must know these commands for its own safety and the safety of others.

What are your words for other actions?

When you want your pet to know that it needs to move off the couch, do you say "off" or "down"? Or, do you interchange the two without realizing it? This is pretty common. What about when you get frustrated because you don't understand why a particular command or behavior is such an exception, even though in most circumstances your pet is quick to respond to other commands. Have you stopped and asked yourself why? Have you really looked at how you're commanding? Not just your words, but your body language, tone of voice and hand gestures as well.

Start thinking about your language when this and other similar situations arise.

Are you using different words for a single command?

Do you change them without thinking or realizing that you do?

Are you interchanging commands with other meanings?

Do you say "down" when you want your pet to get off furniture, but also use "down" when you want your pet to lie down?

Are you speaking in full sentences?

Example: "Now Fido, we've talked about this. You need to get off the couch."

Really? In that long series of what your dog or cat perceives as a foreign language, do you really think your pet can magically pick out the single, un-emphasized use of the word "off" in that long sentence?

Do you raise your voice in frustration?

Be aware that shouting and yelling to a dog is the pretty much the same thing as barking. What do dogs do when other dogs bark? They join the chorus or react in fear or aggression.


Asking yourself these and other communication-oriented questions can help you identify inconsistencies. Doing this can also start you in the direction you need for developing a "communication plan" to increase both your pet's language skills and your ability to direct your pet's actions.

The point here is, often when pet owners bring a new pet into their homes they neglect to consciously choose the language or define their expectations for what their pet must learn. Consciously choosing these simple requirements will help create a peaceful, happy coexistence.

When you see those amazing pet trick videos of other pet-owners and their seemingly symbiotic animal companions, do you ever notice the subtlety of the language the two share?

Take for example, the online video of the gentleman with the rescued-from-certain-death cattle dog. The video shows the dog in a field as its owner's voice-over quietly and calmly carries on a conversation with his dog. The dog seems to magically move forward a step at a time toward its prize. Then the dog freezes, steps back, inches forward, crawls, all seemingly in perfect synchronization to the rambling words of the announcer. If you watch the video from a more analytical point of view, however, you can easily pick out the key "command" words the owner uses that communicate very clearly to the dog what his expectations are for each and every action. Obviously the man has spent a great deal of time building this language and this relationship with his dog. But it's an excellent example of what can be possible when your language with your pet is clear.

Pet owners who have taken training classes or sought out advise from knowledgeable owners have often heard this principle being eluded to in different ways. But, the approach for you and your pet is very simple.

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Develop a Communications Plan
for you, your family, and your pet.

This plan will become the basis for the language you are teaching your pet.

Start your plan keeping these ideas in mind

Clearly define your expectations for your pet:
  what you want your pet to understand (language)
  how it should respond (expectations)
  and what it can and cannot do (boundaries)
Consciously choose the language you want your pet to clearly understand by identifying your commands.
Use commands consistently and conservatively.
Use the command once and learn to wait.

Pets are not magically compliant toys that we should expect to manipulate at our whims. They are living, thinking beings. Once they learn the needed language, they will understand what you expect. But, just like children or even some grown-ups, it may take a second or two for the command to make its way into your pet's ear, through its brain, and out to its body.

When you give a command, use the word only once. Do not repeat the command over and over because this will confuse your pet. As a general rule, give the command once and count "one thousand one, one thousand two" (silently, of course) before you give a direction or correction. Give your pet a chance to translate and comply before you confuse or frighten the animal for - most likely - just thinking.

My dog believes her command to jump up on something is "up, up, up". Because I would sing-song this every time I wanted her to jump into the car or up on an object.

After a few unsuccessful attempts to use "up" sometime later, when I stopped and realized what I'd actually taught her, I made the choice to define the language for that action and I now use only "up, up, up". She listens every time now because we both know exactly what I mean and what I expect her to do.

Before bringing a new pet into your home, and especially if you are bringing your pet into a home with multiple humans, make a list of what commands will be used and what actions you want your pet to perform with these commands. Make sure everyone who interacts directly with your pet knows the commands and agrees to use them. Making preparations early to help establish the language your pet will need to learn will improve your pet's ability to quickly and effectively learn how it is expected to behave.

It's never too late to make this language-adjustment with your pet. If you've had your pet for years and never realized the confusion you were causing, there's still hope. You actually CAN teach an old dog new tricks.

Using hand-gestures for commands

Most dogs will learn hand signals far quicker than word commands because they are sight and movement driven. Once again, clearly defining what the signal is, what word or command it should be associated with, and the desired outcome before you begin teaching your pet, will greatly increase your chance for success and dependability for execution.

Teaching "sight commands" can also be extremely useful in loud or chaotic situations. The words and gestures you choose don't matter as much as the consistency with which you use them.

Deciding on your commands and their corresponding hand-gestures can be fun, and it's an opportunity for you and your pet to bond through the creation of your own private language.

Remember Being clear in your commands and your expectations gives your pet the chance to truly show you the extraordinarily smart, compliant and loving companion that they can be for you and your family.

Once they fully understand the language and what your expectations really are for their response to that language (commands), your pet will surprise you with how eager they are to comply. Be aware, though, that if you haven't defined your own expectations for their response, they DEFINITELY won't know. One thing your pet is not:  a mind-reader.

boundaries  Another key area of training is deciding what the physical boundaries are within your home? Determining your boundaries is another important part of defining your commands and expectations.

Is the pet allowed on your furniture? Some owners enjoy sharing their couch-space with their animal companions. Some do not. Others want to share their space, but not all of it. If your pet isn't allowed on the furniture, enforce this boundary from the start.Consistency is the key.

In conclusion, determining your commands, expectations and boundaries will greatly improve your chances for successful training and your pet’s ability to learn. Take time to think about how you want to communicate with your new or current pet. Identifying even the most seemingly unimportant cross-signals and making a plan to help both you and your pet understand your expectations can make a big difference in the quality of your relationship.

see also points to consider before adopting a small dog

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