Repeating commands in dog training is one big mistake many dog owners make and this habit can really put a dent into any progress made in dog training. For very good reasons, “never repeat a command twice” is one of the essential rules dog trainers will never get tired of repeating enough (pun intended!). But why is it so difficult for many dog owners to stop repeating commands in dog training? Interestingly, there may be several dynamics going on that maintain such behavior. By getting better acquainted with these dynamics, dog trainers and dog owners can work on reducing this habit so that progress in dog training can be made.
Why Do Humans Tend to Repeat Themselves?
As humans, we are strongly predisposed to use words to communicate our needs, and often, when our desires or needs are not met, we will develop a tendency to repeat ourselves over and over again.
This habit is so ingrained that, even if we talk to somebody who speaks a different language or is deaf, we repeat ourselves as if our words would magically auto-translate or suddenly become audible. But why is that? Most likely, we tend to repeat ourselves because our persistence has a history of reinforcement.
For sake of an example, let’s imagine a mother telling her child to do his homework. The child ignores (or pretends to ignore) the request and keeps on watching television instead. Most likely the mother will at some point grow impatient and will very likely repeat the request to do homework, perhaps in a much more authoritarian tone. This time around, the child decides to listen, shuts off the TV, and goes straight to getting his homework done.
What has happened in this case? Mom’s behavior of repeating herself has been positively reinforced although it required her to put her “I mean business” tone on. Most likely, her behavior of repeating herself will therefore persist in the future in this instance and in similar instances.
And what happened to the child? The child has likely learned that mom’s first warnings may not be worthy of attending to, and that he can watch TV a little bit more before the bigger warning comes. At that point, once the bigger warning has arrived, the behavior of doing homework has been negatively reinforced, since it has stopped mom’s slightly aversive requests. Soon, these reinforced behavior patterns strengthen and establish in both mother and son.
Hint: For a better understanding of positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement read this handy article on the quadrants of dog training.
Problems with Repeating Commands in Dog Training
Now, back to dog training. So you have taught your dog to sit. You are very proud of your dog and show your family and friends how well-trained your dog is. You say the word sit, and right as your dog hears the word, his precious bottom hits the floor, you then praise and pet your dog. Your mother-in-law, who has missed the show, asks you to perform the action again and you say ”sit!” Your dog is a little bit distracted by the nice tray of cookies your mother-in-law has put on the table, so you repeat the command ”sit!, sit!” Once your dog sits, you are happy he remembered the command so you give extra praise and pats.
The next day arrives and your dog is asked to sit again. You say ”sit” and your dog looks at you as if a little bit insecure. You repeat the command ‘sit’ ‘sit’ and this time your dog sits promptly. Happy your dog has remembered the command, again you praise and give lots of attention. Your dog is happy too and does a happy dance. The same scenario happens over the next days and you start wondering why your dog is no longer listening the first time.
The answer is pretty simple: you have simply trained your dog, after a series of repetitions, that the actual command is now ”sit, sit, sit” and no longer just “sit,” just like the child has learned not to attend to mom the first time she tells him to do his homework. However, it’s not really like your dog is putting you off, so do not blame your dog for being stubborn for not listening the first time. Very likely, if your dog could talk he or she would be saying something along these terms: ”You have recently taught me the command is ”sit, sit, sit” so when I don’t sit right away, please consider that I am simply politely waiting for you to finish the command!”
Clarification: although the term “command” has been used throughout the article, a much better term is “cue.” Cue implies kinder training methods where we do not expect dogs to be obeying us in a militaristic way, but rather with gentle guidance and respect of the animal. The use of command in this article was therefore mostly used for clarity as most dog owners are familiar with this term (OK, OK, it was also done for SEO purposes).
Evoking a Calming Signal
Another scenario worth mentioning is the cliche’ of dog owners who, not only have the habit of repeating commands in dog training, but also tend to increase the tone to a more authoritarian one. They may therefore start with a calm “sit” and then, as frustration builds in, they will use a much louder or much harsher tone.
This tendency to escalate will only lead to further problems. Dogs will wonder why their owners are getting madder and madder each time, and owners may wonder why their dogs are getting more and more stubborn. Let’s take a closer look into the dynamics taking place.
When some sensitive dogs perceive the build-up of frustration in their owners, they will often shut down and just freeze or they may engage in calming signals which are often misinterpreted by their owners and perceived as the dog simply being stubborn.
Calming signals in dogs are behaviors dogs engage in as an attempt to calm their owners’ down. The dog may therefore perhaps yawn, turn around, sniff the ground, walk away or lick his lips. Dog owners at this point often get even more frustrated and give up training as they feel their dog is just plain stubborn or perhaps even stupid.
In some cases, dogs may end up actually slowly sitting upon hearing the owner says ”sit-sit!” in an angered tone of voice. In this case, the dog is likely simply sitting as a calming signal and most likely it’s accompanied by other signs of appeasement such asmoving slowly, looking away and licking his lips.
In this case, the dog’s sitting behavior has been negatively reinforced, as the owner’s frustration has stopped upon sitting; while the owner’s behavior of repeating the command and escalating, has been positively reinforced by the dog “complying” to the requests. It’s too bad when such miscommunication takes place, because it creates a disfunctional pattern of communication that keeps everyone stuck, fortunately there are better ways to train and options to remedy such situations.
“We behave as if volume itself could somewhat create the energy we need to stimulate our dog to respond. This tendency to get louder seems to be an integral part of our heritage.”~Patricia McConnell
Solving the Problem
If you have fallen into the habit of repeating dog commands in dog training, don’t be worried, there are hundreds of dogs out there trained to ”sit, sit, sit” and ”down, down, down,” and ”heel, heel, heel’! Fixing the problem though is sometimes easier said than done.
If you are obedience training your dog, you instructor will likely catch you and correct you most of the time. At home, on your own, you must be very self-conscious of what you are saying. Try your best to really pay attention on how many times you say the command.
Now that you have promised and committed that the actual command is ”sit” only said once, you are ready to practice with your dog. But you may be wondering at this point, how can you train your dog again to realize that sit is a one-word command and no longer two or three? It is quite easy.
Grab some high-value treats, let your dog sample one (reinforcer sampling) so he knows what’s in for him and then fill your pocket with a few and ask your dog to sit. You’ll need to be waiting a little bit as you bite your tongue making sure you only say it once! Praise and reward if your dog happens to sit. Although this sit may be initially slow, you can always remedy this later by rewarding only the fasted sits.
If your dog though doesn’t respond and looks at you confused, you may have to take a few steps back in training and teach your dog again exactly the behavior you want (by using prompts such as your hand signals) and then attaching its name once your dog gets the idea. This is OK to do because it’s just temporary and you can then fade the prompts. Praise lavishly and reward when you accomplish your mission. Positive reinforcement as always is the best approach.
Please note: If your command has been repeated too many times and has assumed negative connotations, you may be dealing with what’s known as a “poisoned cue” (a cue that your dog has associated with something negative like your anger or frustration) and therefore you may be better off starting using a fresh cue from the get-go (in other words, re-name it).
And for those wondering, kindness and respect works also in getting children to perform tasks. According to The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley: “A request starting with “please” and followed by “thank you” when the task is completed makes children more willing to do as they are asked. Respecting children and praising their efforts does lead to improved behavior, as noted in the work of experts such as Russell Barkley, an expert on ADHD, and Alan Kazdin, the former president of the American Psychological Association. ”
Did you know? A dog’s hearing is estimated to be approximately 4 times more acute than a humans’. Another good reason why there’s no point in repeating commands in dog training!
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