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How to Teach Your Dog to Read Your Mind

Filed in - Dogs
Editor's Note: This training tip was originally published by One Tail at a Time, a Chicago-based rescue.

The amazing Fido

When most of us are introduced to the concept of training, it's all about telling the dog what to do: sit, lie down, come here, get off, and (maybe) roll over, wave, or shake. But what many of us really want is a dog that just seems to know what to do.

Good news: That, too, can be trained.

Every behavior your dog performs may not have what is commonly referred to as a command—a specific request from you. In fact, most behaviors don't. But every behavior your dog performs does have a cue—a stimulus in the environment that tells him if he does this behavior NOW, it will likely be reinforced.

Armed with this knowledge and some basic training skills, you can have one of those brilliant canine mind readers.

Build on the environmental cue

A dog's environment can be external. Sunlight streaming through the window cues "jump up on the bed," which will likely be reinforced with attention, followed by access to the yard and food, delicious food. (You, the gatekeeper, are part of your dog's external environment, too.) Or, the environment can be internal. Tired legs are cues to take a load off. A full puppy bladder is a cue to pee. In my house, a rumbling stomach means "go stare intently at Kiki."

In this way, dogs are always right. They are doing what the environment has taught them to do by reinforcing their behavior in the past. When you're teaching your dog a cue for a behavior, what you're really doing is adding a new cue. There's a very simple process for this:

  • Insert the new cue just before the old cue.
  • Repeat until the dog begins to anticipate the old cue upon hearing the new one.

This process is wildly useful. Common uses include putting a verbal cue on a behavior cued by the environment (saying "potty" just before your dog is about to go), or assigning a verbal cue (e.g., "down") to a behavior that you taught initially with a visual one (e.g., bending over to touch the floor).

The process of teaching a new cue can also turn the environment into cues for specific behaviors. In other words, this training can make it seem like your dog just knows what to do!

In practice

Here's just one example of a behavior where the environment can do the cueing for you: sitting "automatically" at the curb. As a prerequisite, you'll need to have "sit" on cue and have practiced the behavior in a number of incrementally more distracting locations—including at curbs.

  • Slow down as you approach the curb and gather up your leash, keeping it slack even as you shorten it. This is management: your dog still can make a choice, but not a fatal one.
  • Just as you reach the last block of sidewalk before the curb (or hit a textured curb ramp—these make great, consistent environmental cues for dogs!), give your existing cue for "sit."
  • Click the sit and give your dog a treat.
  • Repeat at each curb, each walk, each day until your dog begins to sit at curbs without being asked.

Once a new cue is in place, you can begin to vary how you reinforce the sit. If your dog enjoys walking, you can simply release the dog to move forward with you again.

This cue-substitution process can also be used to teach a dog to walk calmly past strangers, to leave onions or pills that you've unwittingly dropped on the floor, or even to stay in an unfenced yard.

How many other uses can you think of?

About the author

Kiki Yablon is a KPA CTP in Chicago, Illinois. She owns Dog Training by Kiki Yablon and is the training manager for Animal Behavior Training Concepts.