My latest podcast episode is all about teaching a dog to sit. Because… who doesn’t want a dog to know how to sit! In the episode, I break down how to do it, and how not to do it. In doing so, I introduce some training vocabulary I thought it’d be worth defining:
Capturing is the process of pinpointing a precise moment in time when an animal is engaging in a behavior that you, as the trainer, want to encourage. I think of it like the shutter of a camera literally snapping a moment in time.
A marker is what we use to “capture” a behavior that we want to encourage. A marker can be any neutral stimuli that the animal perceives. It should be distinct and speedy and easy to notice and to deliver. A marker should act as a “conditioned reinforcer” or a “secondary reinforcer,” in that it should always be swiftly followed by something that your subject likes, be it food, play, or praise. With dogs, we tend to use a clicker, a word (I usually say “Yes”). Dolphin trainers usually use a whistle. Horse trainers often use a tongue click.
Luring is the process of “helping” a dog, usually by using body language or by using food. Often, when teaching sit, people tend to get stuck in luring, and use their hands (frequently with fingers pinched as if they’re holding food, whether or not they are) long after the dog needs that kind of visual prompt. In my experience I find that people often lean over as a kind of lure, since leaning tends to encourage a dog to look up, and when a dog’s head goes up, a dog’s butt tends to go down. I suggest luring no more than a couple of time if you must. In almost every case, it’s better off to get away from luring as quickly as possible, or to avoid it from the beginning.
Truth be told, this isn’t really a dog training word. I’ve borrowed it from Plato and Freud, both I of whom used this term to refer to the idea that one may “pull” an idea or realization out of a subject. The traditional way of teaching “sit” seems, to me, like midwifery of this kind: A person says “Sit” over and over, sometimes using various physical lures and prompts, until the dog sits. I tend to think of this as a backwards way of teaching something, since, in the case of “sit,” there is no idea or realization that needs to be pulled out of the dog. The dog already knows how to sit. The trick is communicating to him a) we like it when you sit and b) “sit” is the word we use to describe that thing that you’re doing.
Traditionally, when we ask a dog to do something we want him or who to do, we refer to this as a “command.” In the world of Positive Reinforcement training, we tend to use the word “cue” instead. To some extent, it’s just semantics — I mean, you could refer to asking your dog to do something as “Howdy Doody-ing” and your dog wouldn’t care! But we say “cue” because, once we teach a dog the meaning of a word (the “cue”), than the presentation of that “cue” let’s them know that there is something in it for them if they partake in the associated behavior. The word “command” instead implies a kind of “or else” that is inherently coercive.
Fun Dog Fact Of The Day:
This month marks the 40 year anniversary of NYC’s Pooper Scooper Law, which made it illegal to not pick up after your dog. It was the first law of its kind in the country. You can read more about it at the School For The Dogs blog.
Woof Shout Out:
Meet our student Leo Tolstoy Frank, who you can find on Instagram at @LeoTolstoyFrank. His two dads have been bringing him to School For The Dogs in the East Village all the way from Harlem– no small trip! He recently completed our Sidewalk Psychos program. Says his dad, Steven: “Before Leo started Sidewalk Psychos with Kate, we went out of our way to avoid other dogs on our walks. He couldn’t pass most dogs on the sidewalk without an outburst, so we’d end up taking circuitous routes around the neighborhood to avoid a confrontation. Now we (and Leo) have learned how to manage the situations we can control, and how to avoid situations we can’t (off leash dogs are the worst!). Now Leo can pass just about every dog on the sidewalk without incident!” Nice job, Leo!
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