Dogs and cats are social animals that can learn easily to respond to many of our words, gestures and body language cues throughout any given day.

In some cases, our pets learn our words so well that we end up having to spell them out when communicating with other people in the family. (“John, we need to take the dogs for a W-A-L-K before we leave for dinner tonight.”) In other cases, we wish our pets would respond better to certain words (like “Get down!” or “Come!”) and wonder if they can understand us at all! How is it that our pets learn to respond to our words and how might we best teach them?

First, it’s important to note that while dogs and cats can differ in their level of social interest in following human cues and directives, they do not differ fundamentally in the way that they learn. Much recent research in canine cognition has highlighted the unique predilection that dogs have in responding to human cues, perhaps due to their extensive history living alongside and even sharing tasks with humans (e.g., hunting or herding). However, cats can learn many of the same cues as dogs, as long as we have control over other motivating tools we can use to teach them.

Second, there are features of our communication style that matter to pets just as much as the specific words we use. A word spoken in a threatening voice can mean something very different from the same word spoken in a happy voice. And body language cues are often even more important than our words altogether. Research has shown, for example, that when an owner provides a verbal cue (“Sit”) with a conflicting gestural cue (the hand signal for Lay Down), dogs are more likely to follow the hand signal than the verbal cue and thus lay down instead of sitting.

This month, we will introduce the categories of words our pets respond to. Next month, we will review how to best teach them. There are four general categories into which our words should fall.

Conditioned reinforcers

These words are paired with the delivery of things our pets love. For example, when your dog trainer instructs you to say “Yes!” or “Good!” each time your dog follows a command or cue and then to deliver a treat, he or she is teaching you to establish that praise word as a conditioned reinforcer.

Establishing clear reinforcers can mark the moment when we see a response that we like and communicate to the animal that he or she has behaved in a commendable way. When I throw a toy into the woods for my rat terrier mix, Amelia, she may search around for a while if she loses sight of it. If I see her in the area of the toy, I will say “Good girl!” and she will immediately focus on that spot, searching there more carefully for the toy.

Conditioned punishers

Words in this category are associated with the delivery of something unpleasant. For example, when we say “No” or “Ah ah” each time our dog jumps, we reduce the frequency of jumping (as long as we associate the “No” with a timeout from attention). The timeout may be the essential ingredient in reducing the jumping over time, but the “No” is also given meaning. Thus, in other contexts or in response to other behavior, we can say “No” and the dog will quit whatever he is doing.

For the many owners who complain that their dog has no concept of “No,” it’s often because the word itself has not been systematically associated with something that would matter to the dog. In such circumstances, the dog is not being intentionally defiant — he or she simply doesn’t understand the word in the way that we mean to use it.

Discriminative stimuli

When an animal hears this type of word and responds accordingly, it learns that its behavior will be rewarded. When you call your dog to “Come” and provide praise and treat or a ball throw each time she comes, the word gains meaning because of the positive consequences that follow her coming when called. Most of what we call commands or cues are discriminative stimuli when they have been taught using positive reinforcement.

Unintentional sounds can just as easily become discriminative stimuli. For example, when your cat comes running when she hears the electric can opener, it’s because the can opener sound has become a discriminative stimulus meaning, “Come to the kitchen quick because food will be served!”

Neutral

Words that are neutral are those that have no specific history of being repeatedly or systematically associated with anything of interest to the animal, and these words would be expected to produce no response at all. Most of our hundreds of thousands of spoken words each day pass right through our pets’ worlds, without even causing a lifted ear or a pause in play.

Megan Maxwell, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist whose column appears on the first Tuesday of every month in Extra. Volume may prohibit individual replies to emails. The information presented here may not be applicable for every pet and is not intended to serve in place of an individualized behavior or training plan.

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