On Good Behavior LLC

Dogs Learning Words

Word Associations:
Learning Names vs Learning Commands
 “If my dog knows the meaning of Walk, Dinner, Treat, Daddy’s Home, Frisbee, etc, why won’t he listen when I tell him to Sit?!”
For a non-verbal species, dogs are amazingly good at learning the sounds of human words. Researchers at Wofford College recently taught a border collie the names of 1022 different toys! Typical dogs can have the vocabulary of a 2- 2 ½ year old child.

The key to your dog learning words is to use the same word (or short phrase) consistently. If sometimes it’s “Come!” other times “come-on” and other times “Come here right NOW”, your dog is going to have a much harder time learning the word.
Did someone say Go For A Walk?!*

Naming objects and activities is a much easier task than teaching your dog to follow a command.  When you are naming things, all you have to do is say “Do You Want to Go for a Walk?” every time you are about to take your dog for a walk. Or say “Dinner time” and feed your dog dinner. Your dog doesn’t have to DO anything; he is just learning that these words tell him what is going to happen next. Pretty soon, you’ll see him get excited when you say those magic words.

The useful thing about teaching the names of toys and activities is that you can then use “Do You Want to Go for a Walk?” as a reward. Call him to “Come”. When he does, praise and ask him “Do You Want to Go for a Walk”, and then take him for a walk!

Sometimes, naming things is counter productive. For example, “Time for a Bath” may not be something you want to discuss. And do you really need all the bouncing off the walls and barking you get when you yell “Daddy’s Home!”?

So if word associations are so easy to teach, why are commands so difficult?

Commands require not just that your dog understands what a word means, but that he acts on it. Unlike word associations, commands require your dog to DO something. For the dog to learn what a command means, you need the same level of consistency that you have with words like Walk or Treat. So that means that every time you say Come, for example, your dog runs towards you and sits in front of you.

So for any command you want to teach, you have to have a way to get the dog to do the behavior and then say the word a moment before he does it. In this way, the word is predicting the action in the same way that “Do You Want to go for a Walk” predicts going for a walk. Repeat this a few hundred times, and the dog will start to understand what the word means. However, if half the time when you say Come the dog goes the other direction, or, instead of getting him to come to you, you go and pick him up, he is certainly not going to learn that Come means run and sit in front of you.

The second part of teaching your dog to respond to a command is motivation. Your dog will respond consistently if he gets rewarded frequently and if you enforce the command consistently. For example, if he comes when you call him to Come, you give him a treat or take him for a walk or give him a belly rub. If he doesn’t respond to Come, you put on his leash and bring him to where you called him from and have him sit.

Often, owners tell me “He knows what it means, but he doesn’t listen.” That may be true if you haven’t provided sufficient motivation. I know what you mean when you ask me to stop by tomorrow to help you load up your apartment into a moving van, but don’t count on me showing up!

*Thank-you to MaryAnne Borowski for sharing this lovely photo of Zena taken by Jennelle Kappe

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