Friday, September 10, 2010

Elo doesn't know any words.

It's true. I tested him last night. He STILL doesn't know any words. "Lie down" maybe. But everything else is complete guesses. He knows that when I say something he's supposed to do something but what he gives me is directly correlated to the last thing he did that earned him a click and treat.

Its something I've noticed about him for awhile (and blogged about before) and apparently it hasn't gotten any better. He is acutely tuned in to context. He SEES everything. And smells everything. He HEARS everything for that matter--but I guess words are just sound to him. He pays attention to the way I'm standing while I teach him a behavior, where he is in the room, what else is around him--to the FACT that words are coming out of my mouth--but NOT apparently to the specific words coming out of my mouth. Thus, if I plant him on a rug next to the kitchen and lean against the wall with my clicker hand near my chest and the other at my side, he is guaranteed to offer me a wave. And if I happen to say "wave" right before he does it, it looks like he's performing on cue. But he's really not.

Last night I asked for a "bummer" (lie down with chin on floor) from a sit. No luck. I waited him out and clicked when he got it right. Then I asked for the same thing a few more times. Sit-bummer-sit-bummer (he's getting it!)-sit-bummer-sit-WAVE . . . . uh, you can probably guess what happened next. He wasn't listening to the word at all. Just the fact that I was saying something and he had the pattern down. And he wasn't anticipating the pattern either . . . he was waiting for the cue!

He SEEMS to know a few words, especially the ones that get used ALL THE TIME in his daily life, but I am now wondering if at least some of that is only because there are consistent contextual clues. He knows his name, he knows a recall, he SEEMS to know "lie down" and "sit" though if I am attempting to cycle through his tricks, like last night and add them in he forgets what they mean. He knows "stay here" (boundary cue) and "ok" (release). He knows "kennel." I'm not sure why he knows these things, but still can't tell the difference between lie down, bummer, crawl, roll over, stand, place, and wave. As I've posted about before, he also knew "touch" (nose target) and "step" (foot target) but could never reliably give me the right one if the target object was the same.

It's very strange. My border collies TOTALLY "get" the concept that actions and things have names, and it has always been super easy to name their behaviors--once I have the behavior, all I have to do is pair it up with the command a few times and it's done! Not so with Elo. Facebook tells me it's a cattle dog thing. I'm not sure what to do about it. Not that it's a big deal--he doesn't NEED to know any words. He does the things I need him to do. Maybe I should switch to hand signals only. I haven't done much with him lately--maybe this winter I will try to teach him some formal obedience and see how that goes. I still think he would be a super fun Rally dog, if I can get him past his dog issues.


  1. I missed the post on FB, damn. I believe it's a dog thing. Look at since the beginning of time, it's always been situational cues that have shaped how we interact with dogs. Dogs are NOT *naturally* verbal creatures. They use body language to communicate 99.9% of the time. So it makes sense that is how Elo interprets his communication with you. I would suspect that the words he "knows" are probably paired with a situation as the cue most of the time. Like if you sit on the floor facing the corner and say kennel would he know it then? My Aussies are this way too. One summer I tried to teach verbal cues to Java of different retrieval items. It was somewhat successful but she never really got it. Kate... no problem. Why? Because we've specifically bred BCs for 100's of years now to listen to verbal cues (whistles) from handlers hundreds of yards away. Acres away. They ARE significantly different from other herding breeds (shit, all breeds) because of this auditory (verbal) ability. :) Not to say it doesn't crop up in other breeds, or that some BCs aren't verbal, but I believe that is why you see the difference.

  2. I'm sure you're right about that. Most of my training experience has been with border collies--my own and fosters--and they've always been very verbally inclined. I've had one aussie mix foster that was the same way Elo is, except also stupid. No wonder it never really sank in when in obedience classes they always talked about how hand signals are easier for dogs than verbals. I didn't find that to be true--Lok always picked up verbals with just a couple repetition and tended to be more confused about hand signals (course, he was partially blind and I didn't know it at the time).

    So how do you teach a "normal" dog to perform tricks on a verbal cue?

  3. sorry just laughed at the Lok comment. poor guy

    For Trin, like you're doing with Elo. Tried to be still, since we DO physically cue even when we're consciously trying not to. I just worked Left/Right spins with her. If she "listened" she got rewarded, but still humans are predictable and dogs are MASTERS at reading our predictive actions and I realized sometimes she was just guessing correctly. Same with Java and the toy discrimination game. Even got to where I think she could tell which one I was looking at and that's how she was doing it vs actually listening to a cue.

    Maybe it's not possible to teach a non-BC words? Though I know there is that Poodle that knows like 100 different toys, so maybe just certain dogs? Then again, if I say "kitty" or "hungry" my Aussies know that. Or is it because I say it at a predictable time? :)

  4. <>

    Yes! Or maybe its because a)it has VERY significant meaning--like if you gave your dog a cheesburger every time you said "cheeseburger," I bet any dog is going to learn that word in no time flat, and b)there ISN'T necessarily a consistent context--like when I train tricks, it's pretty much ALWAYS in the living room with treats and a clicker, the environment is the same, I look the same, sound the same, etc. But words that are especially significant to their lives get used more often and in a wider variety of contexts. Who knows.