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Your Weekly Training Tip

May 2, 2010

Go to Canine Behavior Services home pageAssociation: The (Nearly) Effortless Dog Training Approach 

When I am out training, demonstrating, or playing with my dogs, I often get asked the question "how in the world did you teach your dog that?", about some trick or command my dogs know. While I might enjoy giving some awe-inspiring response as to how I carefully shaped the behavior, using all my skills as a dog trainer, gleaned through countless hours of hard work and study over the last twenty years --- well, all too often, this is not the case. Truth is, I tend to be a least-effort trainer. While I love to train, I have other interests, too, not to mention a generally busy life! So, if there is an effortless (or nearly so) way of teaching a behavior, by golly, I'll take it. And one of the most effortless ways to teach a behavior (or, more accurately, put a behavior on cue) is to take advantage of the dog's admirable ability to make associations between events.

We see examples of this daily when our dogs run to the door for a walk when we pick up a leash, or run to their crates or napping spots when we get read to leave in our work clothes. Dogs run to the kitchen at the sound of dog bowls clanking, and to the front door when they hear a vehicle in the driveway. Some dogs hide when they see nail clippers picked up. Were these behaviors "taught"? Not intentionally. Our dogs learned these responses by associating one event with another. "Events" can be just about anything: the sound of a delivery truck, the sight of the leash, a touch, a scent, and yes - a word. And yet, too often, I find that dog owners have no idea that they can use association as a training approach.

You can greatly increase your dog's vocabulary, with almost no effort, by using association. Think of any behavior that your dog currently does on her own that would be cute, entertaining, or practical to have on cue. Then decide on a unique verbal cue, and say it as your dog performs that behavior. If the behavior is one that that passes quickly, you will probably have time to say your cue just once. If it's one that lasts any time, continue to repeat your cue for as long as she continues to perform the behavior. Do this at every available opportunity, until your dog associates the word or phrase with the action. It would be hard to find a training method much more simple than that! It requires no special skills or tools, not even treats. I love this method, and have taught my dogs many of their most useful day-in, day-out commands, as well as fun tricks, using this very approach.

  • What kinds of behaviors can be taught this way? Anything that your dog now does, either on her own initiative or with some prompting, can have a cue associated with it. If your dog sits, lies down, comes, jumps up, gets off, goes outside, comes inside, gets in her kennel, drinks water, sniffs bushes, relieves herself, barks, fetches, shakes when she's wet, cuddles on her bed, gives kisses, rests her head on your lap ----- you get the idea, I'm sure! ----- you can put it on cue through association!
  • How long does it take? If you are consistent and careful to pair the cue only with the desired behavior and not with "almost was" behaviors, it can take anything from a couple dozen repetitions, to over fifty, to complete the association process. Associations that involve surprise or excitement (or fear) tend to be created much more quickly. A trainer I once worked with taught her dog to search the floor at her feet for food when she said "oh, shoot!!" in ONE repetition - by dropping a plate of hors d'oeuvres in front of her dog as she exclaimed! Other cues, such as teaching a dog to go to the bathroom on cue, tend to require more repetition. Just remember, give you cue during the behavior, not after!
  • One caveat. It's just as easy to put unwanted behaviors on cue as it is desirable ones. If you consistently associate a cue with an action, an association will develop. I have seen many pet owners actually teach their dogs to lunge and grab on cue, by crying "leave it!" as the dog lunges. (Leave It becomes the cue for lunging, instead of the intended cue for leaving something alone.) I have seen dogs learn to jump up on cue, when owners consistently yelled "off" only when the dog jumped. (Off becomes the cue for jumping, instead of the cue for paws on the ground.) Years ago, I inadvertantly taught one of my own dogs to bark on the word "quiet", by saying that each and every time she barked! The power of association is very strong - use it wisely!

Have fun with this - it's one of my favorite training techniques. I would love to hear what you teach using this method!

Until next week, Happy Training!

Julie Cantrell BSc, CPDT-KA, CDBC
Canine Behavior Services



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Weekly Training Tips are Copyright 2010, Julie Cantrell BSc, CPDT-KA, CDBC, Canine Behavior Services. All rights reserved.