By any name

What do words mean to your dog?

Nala is confused, and rightly so.
“why would you say one of my names when I am already here and looking at you?”

I am willing to bet that you and your dog define several words very differently.

Take, for instance, your dog’s name–and many of its variations. When I say, “Nala!” or “Puppy!” or “Puppy-girl [-face, -pie, infinite nonsensical variations],” I am, naturally, thinking of my dog as her individual, furry self. In other words, I would define Nala, puppy, and the answer to the ridiculous but oft-uttered question “Who’s my best girl?!” the same way–with a mental image of my dog–even if I expected different behavioral responses to each of these words.

But how does my dog define them? I’d guess her definitions range from “noise the girl human makes when she is happy and petting me” to “Run to the girl human and eat the treats she is dropping between her feet! No time to think, run, run!”

What about other cues? How about “down”?

I’d define that as “fold or plop down onto the ground and stay there until I release you.” I bet many of you would, too–or at least as something similar.

Wanna try an experiment? Go do something that gets your dog to follow you. Before your dog can get underfoot–that is, while she is still several feet away–try giving a cue like “down” or “sit.”

Okay, now. Raise your hand if your dog either stared at you like that sound made no sense, or put herself in front of you before hitting the dirt.

she's nothing if not eager
Me, me! I did!

Dogs are such brilliant discriminators, and it’s so easy to forget how literal they can be. Recently, I had a great reminder of how willing my dog is, and how hard she tries to do what she thinks is right.

We were on a hike, and had to go down a cliff face that was short but steep, with ledges spaced a few feet apart for climbers to descend with relative ease. Nala leapt down gracefully, totally bereft of hesitation or fear. After realizing that she was (still) tethered to the slow, careful humans by a 20 ft line, she started wandering back and forth right at the bottom of the cliff.

“It would be nice,” my partner said, doing his best to not be pulled over, “if she would just stop moving for, like, a second.”

“I can do that!” I said. “Nala, down!”

And, eagerly and enthusiastically, Nala promptly clambered back up the cliff and did her very best to lay down right in front of my feet, her feet slipping around on the nearly vertical cliff wall, her tail wagging, and her face beaming as if to say, “This is what you wanted, I am sure of it!”

this face, all the time <3
Good job, Nala.

The takeaway? It doesn’t matter what you name a behavior–your dog will recreate exactly the picture that you have reinforced. Even, apparently, if she has to lay down vertically in order to do so.

A note on training: obviously, we need to do work on generalizing this cue to help clearly explain to Nala what I think it means! At this point, we’ve practiced it in much of the house, and I think we’re just about ready to take it outside. I’m using a Sue Ailsby method, and it makes good sense to both Nala and me; it can be found in the New Training Levels.

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