I’m reading Patricia McConnell’s excellent book, The Other End of the Leash. In this book, McConnell frames the challenges of dog training and human-dog relationships in terms of the kinds of communication typically used by primates and canids. She’s not just talking about differences between creatures that rely on vision and creatures that rely on olfaction. She gets into things like grammar, volume, repetition, and pitch of vocalizations.
McConnell points out that even though we know it’s important to consistently use the same words, in the same way, we often don’t. In states of frustration, I’ve told Milo to “lay down, down, get down.” These disco lyrics are not exactly what even a generous person would call good handling. Milo is biddable, smart, and patient and so usually complies with my desires even when I express them poorly. But, what if I had a dog who was slightly less awesome? (The results would not be so good.) And how much better could Milo and I be if I was more consistent and clear? (The results could be fab.u.lous.)
To sharpen my game I made a list of words that Milo knows, along with a description of what I am asking him to do when I use those words.
Here’s Milo’s vocabulary list:
- Milo: pay attention to me and approach me
- Look: make eye contact with me
- Sit: bum on ground, front legs straight
- Stand: legs straight, four paws on the ground
- Down: bum and elbows on the ground
- Stay: don’t move until I give a release or another command
- Come: snap your head toward me, approach me quickly, sit in front of me, and let me grab your collar
- Wait: pause until I’m gone or I tell you to do something else or I release you.
- Drop: let go of what you are holding in your mouth
- Easy: do less of whatever you are doing
- Let’s go: keep up with me when we are loose leash walking
- Hup hup: forge ahead and lean into your leash/collar
- Heel: keep your shoulder aligned with my knee, keep your body parallel to the direction I’m facing and sit if I stand still
- Back: step backward in a straight line
- Around: get into heel position by walking behind me
- Get in: Get into heel position by swinging yourself around on my left. This is also a reminder to tuck his butt toward me when we are making a left turn.
- Switch: walk behind me and stand or sit quietly on my right side
- Crate: get in your crate
- Mat: go lay on your nearest bed, or the bed I’m pointing at
- Hoover: eat what’s on the floor
- Leave it: stop sniffing or eating
- Out of it: stop staring
- Break: release from a sit, down, stand, or his crate
- Yes: functions as a click and is a release
- Good: keep doing what you are doing
- Nope: try it again
- Up: jump onto what I’m pointing at
- On: put your front paws on what I’m pointing at
- Touch: touch your nose to my open palm
- Over: jump over a high jump
- Jump: jump over a broad jump
- Tunnel: go through an agility tunnel
- Kiss: lick my face
- Paw: put your paw in my hand
- Toys: all the things that he plays with and live in his toy box
- Kong: red rubber toy that I fill with food
- Ball: any tennis ball sized ball
- Clean up your toys: picks up your toys and puts them in your toy box
He also knows some German words, but I don’t use them regularly because I’m much pickier about precision when I use these commands:
I learned a lot from this list.
First of all, I didn’t realize that Milo knew so many words or so many kinds of words. Some of these words are verbs, some are nouns, some are general terms. I use some of these words to ask him to move or move faster, and some of them to ask him to stop or slow down.
Second, “wait” and “easy” are interestingly vague. Milo does what I want him to do when I use these terms. But I wonder how much of “easy” has to do with my tone of voice. And I wonder how much of “wait” has to do with my body language that blocks him from moving. I need to think about those words.
Finally, this exercise made me wonder what these words mean to Milo. For example, does “sit” mean drop your bum to the ground or does it mean be in a sitting position? In other words, when I ask Milo to sit am I asking for the movement or the final result? This is important because some folks will reinforce a long sit or down by repeating the command every so often–maybe every minute or two. If the command is for a motion, then saying the command when you want the dog to stay still is giving the dog an instruction that it is impossible to follow.
I’m interested in this for two reasons. First, I want to communicate as clearly as I can. Second, I’m curious about what it is like to be Milo, and I’d love to know what these funny sounds we humans make mean to him.
I’d love to know what you think your dog thinks when you give commands.