How to Use Warning Cues

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA,
November 3, 2011

It's not too hard to teach your dog to accept annoying human behaviors such as brushing his teeth (the dog's, I mean), putting in ear drops, and even giving shots. The basic idea is to go slow and pair every aspect of the procedure with a tiny, deluxe treat.

On Day 1, you might just show your dog a toothbrush and then immediately give him a bit of roast chicken. A dozen reps later, he'll be looking for that chicken every time he sees the toothbrush. On Day 2, you might bring the toothbrush close to his mouth a dozen times, and give him chicken each time. And so on, step by step, till you're brushing away and your dog is perfectly happy about it.

But, uh-oh, suppose you haven't taught your dog that ear drops = chicken, and now he's got an ear infection and needs drops put in 5 times a day? Suppose he needs daily allergy shots? Suppose he needs a bandage changed? What do you do then?

Most of us, in this situation, just wing it -- we try to sneak up on our dogs and get the job done as fast as we can. But for a client of the Swedish trainers Eva Bertilsson and Emelie Johnson Vegh, that tactic backfired: her dog started avoiding her all day, even when the eardrops weren't coming. Whenever the client headed in the dog's direction, the dog slunk away. The client couldn't take time to get her dog over the fear of eardrops -- she needed the medication. But the poor dog was scared all the time, and the client's heart was breaking. What to do?

Bertilsson and Vegh came up with a brilliant move: they had their client warn her dog when eardrops were on the way.

The warning would have been in Swedish, so don't ask me what it was, but that doesn't matter anyway. Let's say it was "Ear drops!" The key points:

  • The client never gave ear drops without warning her dog by saying "Ear drops!"
  • She didn't say "Ear drops!" at any other time.

The dog soon learned that when her guardian approached her saying "Ear drops!" a certain unpleasant experience happened next. It didn't make her like ear drops one bit better -- but it did relieve her all-day anxiety and make her stop avoiding her guardian.

Now the dog knew that ear drops were coming when she heard that sound, and she knew that if she didn't hear that sound, all was copacetic. She could relax. She was safe.

Read about the warning cue, along with plenty of other good stuff, in my new book, The Dog Trainer's Complete Guide to a Happy, Well-Behaved Pet. Pre-order it now and it'll be in your hot little hands on publication day, November 8!

Image courtesy of Shutterstock