Month: January 2016

17. What’s In A Name? or “Is Suki in witness protection?”


“Did you call me ‘Kiko’? You must have mistaken me for someone else….no, no, I’ve never been to Nashville….”

Around the time I was adopting Suki the Cattle Dog X, there was, in addition to the photo that I first fell in love with, a video of Suki’s guardian angel, Emmylou, introducing her. I didn’t see it until after Suki was mine, but I was surprised to hear that, in the video, Suki was called “Kiko”. I never really found out the story behind Suki’s name change, but I can imagine. Sometimes a word becomes “poison” to a dog…that could mean the dog associates it with something unpleasant (maybe a previous owner always called her name while jerking her choke chain), or it can mean the dog’s experience with the word makes it useless. (If a command, like “Come”, is used over and over again by the owner when the dog isn’t obeying, a savvy trainer may suggest starting in anew with “Here!”, or another cue that has no history of inconsistency associated with it.)

My first view of Suki!

Anyhow, this led me to think about names. As a human, one’s name is part of one’s identity…we’re particular about it, because we identify strongly with it. Nobody likes to hear their name mispronounced, or misremembered. But what about dogs? When Suki got her name change, did she want to say, “Hey! What’s with this ‘Suki’ thing? I’m Kiko!!!” Somehow, I don’t think so. To a dog, her name is just a word that is followed by something. “If they call this word and I look, they give me a treat!”, or, “They only use that word when they’re mad at me!” Often, it’s just meant to tell your dog, “I’m talking to you!”, especially in a multiple dog household; owners say the name, and then the cue: “Suki! Sit!”. In any event, it becomes important to think about how you use your dog’s name, and what you want it to mean to the dog.

The same is true of verbal cues. In my post on “woof” training, I mentioned that I’m not ready to insert the “shush” cue yet, because the behavior is not predictably reliable. Jean Donaldson, Kathy Sdao, and other high level trainers suggest not inserting a cue until you’d be willing to bet big money that the dog will obey it. Until then, you are working on getting your dog to offer you the behavior because she knows it will get her a treat.

So, whether you’re using “capturing” or “shaping”, the cue doesn’t get inserted until you can predict that the dog will offer the behavior.

If you’re using “luring” with food, then the initial food lure, which follows the verbal cue, may, after a dozen reps, get replaced by a visual cue which looks like the lure. It’s a sort of “bait and switch”, wherein the dog still thinks you’re leading him with food, when, in reality, the hand is empty. After he produces the behavior, you still reward him, at least initially, with food, so he learns that even the empty-handed lure is a promise of a later reward. Otherwise, you get a dog who only works when you show him the food.

Attentive dogs: the late Django, and Suki. “We aim to please!!”

In any event, every time you use your cue without being able to elicit the behavior, the cue becomes less powerful, which is why it pays to think carefully about how you use words with your dog.

16. Suki “Woofs”! Well, duh!


Suki and I are working on her “woofing”. What’s that? You say  your dog is already very skilled at woofing? In fact, maybe too skilled? Well, yes, I felt that way about Suki, too, and that’s why I’ve chosen to try and put “woofing” on cue. After she gets that part down (and, as you’ll see in the accompanying video, she’s well on her way,) we’ll get serious about “shushing”, so we can put not barking on cue. This will allow Suki the freedom of expressing herself verbally in a way that I deem to be socially acceptable. Your dog needn’t take a vow of silence for life.

As a slight sidebar here, I’d like to point out that trying to eliminate growling in your dog may not be such a good idea. After all, a growl is your dog’s way of warning, “Hey, don’t push me into doing something we’ll both regret!” Without that form of communication, your dog, in certain situations, might be like a time bomb with no ticker…Not so great. Anyhow, I digress…

In a previous post, we alluded to “luring” and “capturing” as methods of training, in addition to the “shaping” from our click training primer. Our earlier post on “All or None” training is actually about “capturing”, a method in which you wait for a behavior to occur and then reward it. Our post on “Lure Reward” training is about “luring”, in which you use some kind of manipulation (preferably “hands off” in nature) to get your dog to perform the behavior you want to reward. Check these earlier posts for more detail!

If you’re luring your dog to bark, having a friend ring your doorbell can work. A celfone could be a big help…you say “Woof!”, and both your dog and your friend on the phone hear the cue. Your friend, stationed at your front door, rings the bell (that’s the lure), your dog barks (that’s the behavior), and you deliver the treat (that’s the reward).

In this video, Suki has already had a couple sessions in which I’d captured or lured her bark, so all it takes to lure the behavior is body language (dropping my weight) on the first rep. After that, I know she’s going to bark for more rewards, so I just need to sneak in my cue (“Woof!”) before she barks. I do this by carefully estimating how many chews it takes before she’s ready to bark again. I try to get a rhythm going, which will encourage her. I don’t lure her with my body drop after the first rep. I try to remain still, so the only cue is my voice, and I make sure to click first, then treat, so the clicker continues to “promise” that the treat is on the way.

After we do a few reps, I break the rhythm by just waiting. If she barks now, without my cue, she gets nothing. If she remains quiet for several seconds, I click and reward her for not barking. That’s the beginning of our “shush” training, which is still ongoing. I’m working on getting that behavior, and I’ll install a cue once it seems more reliable. If you install the cue too soon, it becomes less dependable, because the dog will know that there’s a history of it not working all the time.

Anyhow, I’ll post again later and let you know how the “Shush” part goes…