Mixing Signals

            As a dog trainer I spend most of my day interacting with, watching, training, and communicating with you guessed it, HUMAN BEINGS.  Most people are not too surprised to learn this information, as the rallying cry nowadays seems to be “It’s not the dog, it’s the owner!” While I don’t wholeheartedly agree with that statement I can certainly see where people get this sentiment from. With all my interactions with dog owners, I have noticed quite a few things that people tend to do that hinder their own ability to communicate with their dogs. Most of these actions come from a good place and are well intended.  Unfortunately we just aren’t born with the innate knowledge of how to teach and guide our canine companions.  There is one concept that I see ignored on a regular basis that permeates everything we seem to do with our dogs. 
That concept is Stimulus control, and more specifically the subject of mental blocking.  This process helps dogs save time and energy by helping them ignore unnecessary and or redundant information. Let me give you an example:
            I lure a dog into a DOWN position with a piece of food and as I start to lure the dog, I say down.  Many dogs will lie down while I am doing this, but then they later seem confused when I simply give a command without a lure as though they have never heard it before.

In all reality they may not have “Heard it” in the white men can’t jump sense of the phrase. You see we’re dealing with salience and overshadowing here. In an attempt to simplify the concept, I want to clarify some of these things in an attempt to hopefully bring these issues to the forefront of a few more owners’ minds.
Salient simply means most important or noticeable. Physical movements, or body language which is a dog’s natural form of communication, are very salient.
Overshadowing according to the free online dictionary means to render insignificant or less important in comparison.
Blocking is what occurs when a more salient signal is given simultaneously with a less salient signal.

Ex. I say down as I lure a dog into a down with a piece of food.  My movement, not to mention the piece of food, is more salient to most dogs than the sound coming out of my mouth. In turn the word is overshadowed by my action and lure therefore dog fails to associate the sound “down” with my action of luring the dog down.

More accurately I HAVE FAILED to associate the two signals. If I were to teach it correctly I would need to say down BEFORE I start moving my body to lure the dog! The down is one of the most common scenarios I have seen this concept misused but I also see it regularly with people using a leash to train their dogs for something. When we give a command to a dog as we pull on a leash and collar we are bastardising the same concept. I find the misuse of the leash more egregious because we are adding physical discomfort unnecessarily.

When trying to communicate something to a dog, we need to keep in mind that the command comes first and the leash comes last. Or when using food, command first, Lure last.  Either way, keeping mindful of Pavlov’s discoveries in classical conditioning requires us to put the noise before the action to associate the two. When we operate outside of this principle our dogs will still learn, but generally not in the desired manner. They will learn that they have to lay down, when you get so low to lure them that you’re practically laying down yourself! Always keep in mind Command > Lure > Mark > Reward.
If more owners followed this simple piece of advice, and made sure they were mindful of their communication with their dogs in all of their interactions there would be more dogs learning what they’re owners intended, and I think a few less frustrated dog owners!