Downeast Dog News

ESL Test for Dogs

Does he REALLY understand words?
By | Jun 01, 2017
We often forget that dogs don’t come into our homes understanding anything we say; instead, they arrive with their own set of rules and language which are often counter to our own. It’s quite impressive that they can understand our words at all given the fact that they are not verbal creatures. They have an uncanny ability to read us, and to see patterns in our own behavior that provide them with information that makes sense to them.

What words does your dog understand? Maybe he responds to cues such as “sit,” “down,” or “heel”… or maybe not… The question is, does he truly understand the words or is he responding to something else? It’s fun to test this!

Invite your dog to take an “ESL” (English as a Second Language) test!

You will be asking your dog to do things verbally only, without you moving a muscle. It’s harder than you might imagine! We are hard-wired to “talk with our hands” and dogs are hard-wired to tune into the visual information and tune out the verbal.

The rules:
Choose a behavior you are pretty sure your dog will do on a verbal cue.

• In a non-distracting environment, cue your dog only once to do the behavior… but don’t move a muscle!
• Did he respond?
• If “yes,” GREAT! Do it two more times to test your clever pooch… and reward him, of course, for his excellent response.
• If “no,” don’t blame him. He was probably expecting some additional help from you. This help might come in the form of the slightest movement, hand gesture, head nod, etc.

Oh no… are your cues “overshadowing” each other?

“Overshadowing” layers two pieces of information together simultaneously: one piece the dog understands (the visual); the other which is irrelevant (the verbal). It’s similar to the meteorologist showing us the temperature in celsius and fahrenheit at the same time. If you are familiar with fahrenheit and it makes sense to you, you filter out the celsius information… even though the metric system is clearly more logical! We tend to train our dogs this way and the result is that they really don’t understand the verbal cues, even years later.

So… how DO we help a dog understand that a strange sound (the verbal cue) is attached to a specific behavior? Follow the sequence below, repeat, repeat, repeat, and you should find success!
Rules to teaching a dog a verbal cue (he must already be able to respond to a visual cue):

Part One
1. Say the cue once without making any movements (do not expect a response)
2. One second after saying the cue, present the visual cue that he normally responds to
3. Mark your dog’s correct response as he’s doing it (with a clicker or “yes!”)
4. Reward your dog with something he really loves (a tidbit of meat should do)
5. Repeat steps 1-4 five times.
Now… onto the next level…

Part Two
Instead of following the verbal cue right away with the visual cue, hesitate just a tiny bit - a few seconds only - to give your dog a chance to respond. If he doesn’t, he just needs more repetition of the above steps. Occasionally test his response this way, and one day he will have put this pattern together and will respond to the verbal cue.

Proof it!
Proofing a cued behavior can be lots of fun. Will your dog respond to the cue if you are sitting in a chair? Behind him? On a busy sidewalk? Fluency and true understanding of our language comes through lots of repetitions with lots of rewards practiced in lots of locations. Always remember, though, that if your dog doesn’t respond the way you think he should, it’s not his fault - he just hasn’t had enough practice in that setting, or he hasn’t been sufficiently rewarded for his efforts or the challenge of responding is too great for that particular situation.

Behaviors must be relevant to our dogs in order for them to do them, so don’t forget to pay your dog in a currency that he values!