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What’s in a name?

June 12, 2014
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Sunshine first

Sunshine first

Puppies study their environment with high level scrutiny, they are like mini-video cameras – they see everything. When I pick up the kettle I will walk to the sink. When the alarm goes off I will begin to stir. When the garden door opens birds will lift from the feeders.

Along with their observation skills I add “labels” to all activities, as if I was teaching a child our language. John Pilley in “Chaser: Unlocking the genius of the dog who knows a thousand words” carefully explains teaching Chaser from 8 weeks old the names of her toys and the activity she was doing, as she does it. Outstanding results. Although half my heart belongs to collies, I have no doubt many other types of dogs also learn our language – given the opportunity to do so.

Chaser’s proven results means we need to be thoughtful about how many words we use, and when we use them.

  • Food on the floor

This took 7 meals to learn.As with any associative sounds it needs to be regularly topped up to elicit the response. I reserve this only for the conditions “food on the floor – hurry, hurry, it’s going fast”.

As a gang racing to the front gate to greet the deliveries I can “cuckoo-whistle” several times and drop food on the kitchen floor. It is not dependant on behaviour, but the last one there gets the least amount of food.

For many people this is the start of their recall cue. It should elicit a run towards you. Because I begin this with my own pups at about 4 weeks, there is a very strong response to find what is on offer. This is respondent conditioning. It is not dependant on the behaviour of the pup for food to be put to the floor. As I scatter raw mince on the floor, the pups begin to search around. I make my “cuckoo” whistle, over and over again. At 6 weeks my pups can go into the garden and roam around to explore because I have a secure “collect the litter” call. Merrick arrived without this response, hence a necessity for a Flexi to go in the garden. But with four meals a day, often split into 6, I had many opportunities to introduce the sound as food was put to the floor. She recognised my routine of food preparation within 2 meals, and I could begin the sound whenever she was aware that food was about to go to the floor. With a multi dog household, food was always fed in her pen/crate to prevent the other dogs having a taste. The “cuckoo-whistle” would then send her off to the crate in anticipation of the food.

Heaven - sunshine AND turf

Heaven – sunshine AND turf

  • Upstairs, downstairs, outside, inside


Every route we take has a name. To begin with this occurs because the pup wants to follow you, or avoid being left behind. As you demonstrate your intent, you will see the pup anticipate your route and go ahead of you. If you approach your garden door you are most likely to open it and go out, not just dust the back of the door. As the pup goes ahead you can associate the name of the route. Useful when you need to pup to go downstairs ahead of you to avoid congestion. Useful because the pup can begin to learn words and sounds.

  • What you are doing

If we program our thinking to understanding the meaning of what we want, not what we don’t want, this begins our path to co-operative living, rather than restrictive living. I have a particular dislike of the term “leave” in a positive training environment. We may just as well teach “stop pulling”. It may be what we want, but it leaves the dog in a vacuum as to what to do. Are we walking towards B or going away from A? If we label it “go away from A” the dog may never arrive at B.Control your thinking into clear action – walk towards B – not open ended vacuums.I now can associate a cue “I’m busy”, when the toys are attractive and engaging for self-employment, and not me. This is not “settle down”. That would be a very specific way of lying down, or a specific location – in the crate. The only recommendation is that when you are “busy” you keep one ear open for ominous silence …. it usually means something undesirable is being extracted from the kitchen cupboard!


Most pups need a top up of “are we OK?” every 10 minutes, when they ask this question, respond, give them 10 seconds of Okay-ness and then turn away back to “I’m busy”. (I think a great cue for this would be “go do stuff”)

At the other end of the spectrum, I want to be able to work, eat, watch TV, and have the pup nearby but not interactive. I am busy. This is definitely a “go away from A” and you can please yourself what you do. I begin this when she is engaged with her toys, or playing with Nanny-dog, and I will be in the same room, but engaged in a non-pup activity. I differentiate between: sitting up at the table (eating, typing) and sitting back from the table (open to a pup conversation).

Not “leave” but “walk on by”, “look at me”, “walk this way” ……

This is labelled at every opportunity, what you should not be doing is never labelled. As I leave the kitchen and wish the pup to stay there, with the help of the puppy gate, I give the label “you wait there”. The same for the front gate when I go to feed the chickens. Going into her crate as I close the door, in the van crate. This will develop to a wait on the grooming table, as I turn to collect a different brush. It directly translates as “short term separation, you do not need to follow”.

At 15 weeks she has a building vocabulary:

Hurry-ups          go pee, I am following you with the umbrella and in my slippers, so HURRY ……This is the classic association-by-doing cue, and is useful over the dog’s life 1000 times.

That’ll do            end of game time, toys are going to bed.

Chase!                Run after the thrown toy.

Ready?                I’m about the throw the toy.

Tug-tug               Let’s skin this rabbit, pull, share, tug.

Go find               look for treats on the floor

Each toy is being named: dong-dong, chicken, bunny, rat, mouse, tom-tom, cucumber, banana, etc etc (I shop at IKEA children’s section). Make a note of the toy’s names – or as John Pilley recommends write the name of the toy on the toy in an indelible marker.

Destinations: off to bed (upstairs to her bedtime crate), in the car, kitchen, inside, outside.

My older dogs watching the kettle protocol: she make hot stuff, pick up and turn right, we’re staying in the kitchen, turn left and she’s going through to the lounge. As soon as I make the left turn they will have headed off to the lounge.

Actions: settle down (she is very readable when tired that she is looking for a place to flop, this will be: first choice: patch of sunshine, second choice: by my feet, third choice: her own bed.)

Walk on: when we are out and about and she is trotting along focussed on where we are going. This takes familiarity as at the moment “walk on” is about 2 metres before we respond to wildlife marketing.

Positions can be labelled: sitting, drop, standing

Am I teaching her a heel position or how to stand in a bowl? Absolutely not. Our most important learning is communication, language, relationship.

Labels to emotional states

Absolutely. I can see her getting tired, being full of joy, affectionate, alert, excited. I look for opportunities to associate my future reinforcers. When she charges towards me with her toy for a play time I clap. Feeding her treats I add a “yummy”, I use a whistle sound for celebration.

Love Person!!

Love Person!!

Long before any scientist studied learning theory, the traditional naming of behaviours was by telling the animal what it was doing as it was being done. I have eighteenth and nineteenth century books on “dogge breaking”, and “sheepe dogs of the north” and this was the successful protocol. All writers understood that a stimulus must be effective to trigger the behaviour before a label could be associated. Move the sheep in such a way that the collie needs to move to their left to prevent escape = “come bye”, walk up onto the scent of a bird hidden in the grass = “steady-up”

For any action that continues over and over again you can repeat the label/cue, as the action is repeating. It takes an impressive short amount of time before the label can be used to begin the action.

Probably the one label that deserves the most thought is her name. The choosing of a name is worthy of several hours of consideration. It needs testing before the pup has any idea of its significance, it needs to be shouted in public. You think it to yourself as you are with this new soul and feel the “click” when you know this is who they are.

Child was “Merrell” for a couple of weeks, and one evening when she was sitting on my lap I discovered it was Merrick. A quick trundle around Google found “The Merrick”

“The Merrick is the highest summit in Southern Scotland and lies at the heart of the Galloway ranges. …..Please note that hillwalking when there is snow lying requires an ice-axe, crampons and the knowledge, experience and skill to use them correctly”

Yep, that sounds about right! Scottish breed, knowledge, experience and skill to use correctly.

I have seen the recommended protocol of “say the pup’s name and give it a piece of food” become no more than association of food. Pup hears the name, stands passively and licks their lips. Huh?

I have no ambitions on becoming a food dispenser in my pup’s eyes.

I associate her name when: she is running towards me with all the joy and love a pup can have for “Person!!! Love ya!!”

When she is sitting on my lap having an affectionate cuddle.

When we re-unite after separation – our greeting sessions where we exchange promises of all good things.

When she hears me call her name I want an emotional response that encompasses connection and joy, not “got chicken huh”?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jeanette permalink
    June 12, 2014 2:30 pm

    I love this. I tell my dogs what I/we are doing all the time. And they understand. We have conversations. I had a trainer tell me once that I “talked too much”. She thought the dogs should just watch me all the time and try to figure out what to do or I should “command” them to do things. Needless to say I didn’t train with her.

  2. June 12, 2014 6:34 pm

    I have realized that I talk to my 22-month-old grandson the same way I talk to my dog (who is now 4 1/2 years old). I name what I am doing and what they are doing, where we are going and why. Teaching my grandson to use a spoon, guiding his hand and saying “scoop it up”, reminded me of “bring it here” when my dog was picking up a ball and I was extending my hand. Since dogs have the cognitive ability of a toddler it just seems natural to interact the same way sometimes. When it is time for “puppy lovin”, they both know what “aah, do nice” means. 🙂

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