An Olfactory Cue?

Time for another story about how Nala sees the world!

Meghan's iPhone pictures (all dogs) 922
One of her nicknames is “nose.” Is it any wonder why?

One day, when I had had Nala for about five months, I realized–yet again–that despite doing a very good impression of doing so, Nala does not speak English.

Five months isn’t very long, and so, unsurprisingly, there were some behaviors that I had declared good enough without putting a lot of work into polishing them or discriminating between them (who am I kidding? We still have a lot of those behaviors!). In particular, Nala had two cues that meant “go to a place and lay down:” one was to go to her crate (“go to bed!”) and one was to go lay on the big comfy dog bed by the kitchen (“go to your mat!”). Despite my terrible choice in cues–they start with the same words! What was I thinking?–Nala got them right most of the time, without my even helping her with pointing, based on context cues.

I always thought I knew what the salient cues were for her discrimination between going to her crate and going to her mat. The girl human has nice clothes on and no treat? Go to my crate for a kong. She’s cooking? Go to my mat and wait, drooling a little, for her to throw food at me.

Nala also struggled with being crated when no one is home, so for several months, she got her breakfast every day in her crate, in a bowl, with the door shut. Her evening meal came from a puzzle toy or a slo-bowl (by Kyjen or Northmate–big plastic things) in the living room, so it made sense for her to go to her mat and wait to be released for that meal.

Again, I was sure I knew what Nala’s cues for these behaviors were–probably not the words, mostly, but other obvious visual details. A stainless steel bowl and a human wearing pajamas? Crate. A big plastic feeder or a toy? Mat.

Then, one morning, we were out of coconut oil, which I always used to add to Nala’s breakfast. No big deal: I’d buy some later and put it in her dinner. In the mean time, I added camelina oil, which I always used to add to her dinner, and told her to “go to bed.”

Guess what happened?

Nala turned and ran confidently to her mat.

How could you say no to this face?
“I am so sure that this is right!”

Cool, right? Nala didn’t care what bowl I was holding, what words I was saying, or whether I pointed or not. Her salient cue was purely olfactory–coconut oil means crate. Flax seed oil means mat. Aren’t dogs fascinating?

This post is something of an homage to a series on Eileenanddogs about how dogs notice everything. Here’s the first one:

(you’ll notice, if you read the comments, that I was so excited by it that I ran to my laptop, dug up that old article, and told her about it. Thanks for humoring me, Eileen!)

PS: I’ve been hard at work, for the past week or so, putting together a page about my training philosophy and some selected resources, which should now be in the menu at the top. Take a look, if you’re interested!


5 thoughts on “An Olfactory Cue?

  1. Fascinating, indeed! Wow, Nala! I made the mistake of using a “Go To Mat” and “Go To Den” cue. I made a lame attempt to change the mat cue to “Pink Mat” but mostly I just point. I wonder what different inferences Ruby makes…


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