You’ve probably heard this old saying that ends with, “… everything looks like a nail.” It occurred to me that this applies to some commonly used cues/commands we use with our dogs. Two behaviors we teach in our Head Start Puppy and Family Dog classes are “off” and “take it.”
Dog's Eye View
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We explain that the cue for “off” is initially taught to help our dog learn that, when a piece of food is held ] at the end of his nose, and we say, “0ff,” he is to back away from our hand. He is effectively giving us space by moving away. The moment he draws his nose away from the food treat, we say, “yes” to mark the correct behavior, “take it” to indicate ] he can now take the treat and “good boy,” as we hand him the treat.
There are several outcomes of teaching this. First, dogs that are a bit grabby when they take a treat learn a little impulse control. It’s as if someone offered you a candy bar, and, instead of taking it gently and saying, “Thank you,” you grabbed it out of their hand.
Second, the same cue relates to giving space to us. That moment our dog responds to the “off” cue by moving his body away, his understanding begins. It may seem like a magic tool.
This behavior is often greeted with great enthusiasm from our students. They start using the “off” cue whenever they want their dog to not jump up, get off the couch, get off the kitchen counter or stay away from the cat, among other things. Eventually, everything begins to look like a nail. Then, the cue begins to lose its effect, and soon, we are met with disappointed dog owners.
Here’s the other side of this brand new “hammer.” The “off” cue is only half the exercise. “Take it” tells our dog, “You have moved out of my space or away from my hand. Now, you can take this treat.”
In other words, we have said, “Don’t do that.” (no treat) Do this.” (treat)
Now we can add another cue of our choosing. The “off” cue basically teaches the dog to move away from us or an object and allows us to redirect him to another, more appropriate behavior, such as lie down, come here or sit.
These what to do behaviors are rewarded with a tasty treat or possibly a chew toy. It might sound like, “Buddy, off (the counter). Come here and lie down on your mat.”
Can you imagine living in a world where you only knew you had to get off of everything but were left wondering what you were supposed to do?
Sandra Kruczek is a certified professional dog trainer at Total Teamwork Training, LLC with more than 30 years of experience.