Situational Cues: Training that Makes Life Easier

Imagine for a minute what it would be like if your dog automatically did many of the things you’d like him to do. If you didn’t have to make him do them or even tell him to do them, kind of like the way polite people effortlessly and happily do the little things that make them so pleasant to have around. Wouldn’t it be great if your dog, without you speaking, would

  • sit whenever you picked up his leash or food bowl
  • sit rather than run out when anyone opened the door; waiting for permission to step outside?
  • run to his bed when the doorbell rang, lie down, and wait there until you said he could get up, instead of barking and jumping all over your guests?
  • immediately look at you instead of lunging and barking at the end of the leash when he saw another dog in the distance?

All these and more are possible, and the more things you teach your dog to automatically do in certain situations, the easier life with your dog will be. We call these “situational cues”, since the situation itself tells the dog what to do. One great advantage of training your dog to respond to situational cues is your dog’s good behavior is not dependent on someone knowing the “right” word to say. Once your dog knows how to respond properly to various common situations that occur, he will be like any other responsible member of the household, managing his own behavior and living in a way that enhances your life.

How can you get your dog to do these things without telling him?

  • First, think about what you want your dog to do and what that will look like. You need to know what your goal is before you try to teach it.
  • Next break it down into small steps that make sense (we’ll give a step by step example later in this article to show how to do this), then teach your dog each step separately, helping him get it right and rewarding each small success along the way.
  • Finally, start stringing the steps together, help your dog as needed, and then practice and praise until your dog understands the sequence well, starting with the situation and ending with the desired response.

One example of a situational cue is Petra’s lying down on her Therapy Dog blanket. Petra has recently started visiting an elementary school so that children can read to her, and she needs to lie still and quietly while they read. It often seems as if Petra is a huge bundle of energy crammed into a small package, but she loves to lie still on her blanket. When we get to the school, Petra enthusiastically greets the student who’ll be reading to her, then I take her blanket out of my bag. As soon as she sees the blanket, Petra’s eyes light up and you can feel her excitement. I barely get the blanket on the floor before she is lying on it, looking at the student with a happy expression on her face.

How did I create such eagerness to lie still in a highly energetic dog?

I started by laying the blanket on the floor and dropping treats on it when Petra went to sniff it. Then, if she put a paw on it, I’d drop a treat on it. Soon she was walking onto the blanket, which would cause treats to drop onto it. Next I cued Petra to lie down by holding a treat in my closed fist on the blanket. As soon as she lay down, I dropped the treat onto the blanket (I always delivered the treats on the blanket rather than from my hand, so that the blanket would be special and the focus of her attention). I didn’t use the word “Down” to tell Petra to lie down, because I wanted the blanket itself to become a cue for lying down.

I repeated the above routine several times until Petra would get right onto the blanket and lie down as soon as it appeared, without a word from me. In between training sessions, I always put the blanket away, so that its appearing would signal that Petra should lie on it.

To get Petra to remain on the blanket, I calmly praised and delivered treats on the blanket while she remained there and silently guided her back if she got up. Soon Petra was remaining in a down on the blanket as long as I stayed by her, which is all I need for reading sessions, since I never leave her alone in the school.

by Melissa Fischer,


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