Posted: January 6, 2014, 5:15 p.m. EDT
By Elizabeth Creith
I’ve spent most of my life training our family’s dogs in an informal someone-teach-that-dog-to-sit sort of way. What I learned from training my dogs was that I needed to be consistent and persistent—use the same words and use them all the time. A pocketful of cheese bits helped, too.
My other dogs were trained at home, but I had to train Sky in public. My biggest difficulty was other people. When I was teaching her to keep her feet on the floor, for example, customers would actually encourage her to jump up.
"Don't let her do that,” I’d say, rushing to get her little forepaws back on the linoleum.
"She’s so little and cute,” they’d gush. "I don’t mind!” I was pretty sure they’d mind when she was 45 pounds, but there’s no talking to some people in the face of a cute puppy.
If you always use the same word for the same thing while training, the dogs will know what you mean. Shutterstock
The thing is I understood them. I thought Sky was adorable, and when she gave me the ears-back puppy face and wanted to jump up for kisses, I hated having to keep her down. But I did it. I wanted a well-mannered dog. This, however, wasn’t enough for the kennel-club people among our customers.
Kennel-club people confuse me. Who decided that holding your hand up in the air was a signal for the dog to sit? It looks disturbingly like a Nazi salute, and any members who have spoken to me about my methods have exhibited a—let’s just say a suitably rigorous party-line form of thinking.
One of them spoke to me about Sky when she heard me say "down” for "feet on the floor.”
"We’ll have to train you to use the right words,” she said, with a look she probably thought was sympathetically helpful. "You have to say ’off.’ If you say ‘down,’ then she’ll be confused when you say ‘lay down.’”
I could feel my hackles lift. At heart, I’m a rebel.
I’m also a language geek. My first response—and I bit my tongue on this one—was, "Actually, the grammatically correct term is ‘lie down.’ That may be what’s confusing your dog.”
What I said instead was, "I’ve never had a problem before.” Her sympathetic look disappeared, and after a couple more tries she gave up on me.
I remember when David directed a mother and daughter toward me just before closing one afternoon.
"We have a question about our dog,” the mother said. Their faces were so puckered with worry that I feared a truly horrible problem—tumors, projectile vomiting, nonstop diarrhea. You’d be astonished at how many people seek out a pet store when they actually need a vet.
"What is it?” I asked with my heart in my mouth.
"Well, we’re training her, but the kennel club says we have to use the right words, or we’ll ruin her,” said the daughter. "And we don’t always remember them, and then we say the wrong thing, like ‘down’ instead of ’off’.”
"It doesn’t matter what words you use,” I said. "If you naturally say ’down,’ then use that.”
"But the kennel club said ...”
"Look, your dog will do what you want as long as she knows what you’re asking of her. You can use ‘off’ or ‘down’ or ’broccoli.’ If you always use the same word for the same thing, she’ll know what you mean. And that’s all that matters. Consistent and persistent. Just pick a word and use it, and reward her when she does it right.”
"That's all?” said the mother, her face clearing. "We won’t ruin her?”
"Works for me,” I said. "Always has.”
"We could use ’broccoli’? Really?” said the daughter.
"As long as you remember to use it all the time,” I said.
As they left the store they were squabbling good-naturedly about using vegetables as training words. They probably didn’t really do it, but we can always hope.
For on the floor for the dog—one up for the rebellion!
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