Don’t let a cue become white noise

“Fluffy, sit! Come on, sit. Sit, Fluffy!! Sit down! SIT!”

This is the dialogue many a veterinary clinic receptionist will be very familiar with. Sometimes we might offer to help by pointing out the treats beside the scales, placed to help with just a problem such as this, only to be told “It’s fine, he KNOWS this!”

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If you are repeating a cue, such as sit, and your pet is not offering the behaviour, then that suggests that he doesn’t know what you’re asking, or is too distracted to be able to respond. More importantly, by repeating the cue again and again with no response you are risking it becoming white noise to your pet. Next time you ask, you might find yourself ignored!

I like to tell people not to use a cue unless they would bet me $50 that their pet will respond correctly. A cue is a signal to your pet to offer a particular behaviour right now, and if you haven’t trained that behaviour well enough to be able to bet on the response you are setting your pet up to fail. You don’t want your pet to learn that “sit” means sit sometimes, maybe, if there are no other dogs around, only if Mum raises her voice and pops on the lead.

Any behaviour can be trained through positive-reinforcement without you opening your mouth or offering a polished visual cue. This is important to realise, as many people go about things backwards, offering the cue first and then trying to get the behaviour. It is less confusing for your pet if he knows what is expected first, and then learns that the cue means “do that now”.

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The process of being able to bet on your pets response in a variety of situations is called generalising. You need to teach your pet that “Sit” means sit whether you’re at home, on lead, in a vet clinic, or in the car. Help your pet in each new place by essentially going back to kindy. If you taught your pet to sit by luring with a treat, get the treat out again. Make it easy for your pet to respond correctly.

With time and practice you will find that new cues generalise to different locations much more easily, and you will be more confident about asking your pet to do something in a range of situations. Until then, set your pet up to succeed! Don’t let your cues become white noise!

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