Dogs and cats are social animals who can learn easily to respond to many of our words, gestures, and body language cues throughout any given day. In some cases, our pets learn our words so well that we end up having to spell them out when communicating with other people in the family. (“John, we need to take the dogs for a W-A-L-K before we leave for dinner tonight.”) In other cases, we wish our pets would respond better to certain words (like “Get down!” or “Come!”) and wonder if they can understand us at all! How is it that our pets learn to respond to our words and how might we best teach them?

First, it’s important to note that while dogs and cats can differ in their level of social interest in following human cues and directives, they do not differ fundamentally in the way that they learn. Therefore, while many pet owners assume that dogs can be taught all sorts of cues or commands, the presumption is often that cats are a lost cause and cannot learn similar cues. In fact, cats can learn many of the same cues as dogs, as long as we have control over other motivating tools we can use to teach them. Nonetheless, much recent research in canine cognition has highlighted the unique predilection that dogs have in responding to human cues, perhaps due to their extensive history living alongside and even sharing tasks with humans (e.g., hunting or herding).

Second, there are features of our communication style that make as much difference to our pets as the specific words we use. Thus, if a word if spoken in a threatening voice, it can come to mean something very much different than the same word spoken in a happy voice. And body language cues are often even more important than our words altogether. Research has shown, for example, that when an owner provides a verbal cue (“Sit”) with a conflicting gestural cue (the hand signal for Lay Down), dogs are more likely to follow the hand signal than the verbal cue and thus lay down instead of sitting. You can easily imagine all the many styles we use when communicating with our pets if you’ve ever watched someone trying to call their off-leash and distracted dog – the happy and upbeat “Fluffy, Come!” from across the meadow soon turns to the low-pitched and threatening, “Fluffy Elizabeth Johnson, you get over here right now!”

Regardless of whether your pet is a dog or cat or seems especially attuned to you or not, it’s important to have an understanding of why and how our pets come to pay attention to some of our words and not others. This month we will introduce the categories of words our pets respond to and next month we will review how to best teach them. There are four general categories into which our words should fall.

1) Conditioned reinforcers: words become conditioned reinforcers when they are paired with the delivery of things our pets love (that is, positive reinforcers). For example, when your dog trainer instructs you to say “Yes!” or “Good!” each time your dog follows a command or cue in dog training class, and to deliver a treat just as or just after you do, he or she is teaching you to establish that praise word as a conditioned reinforcer. In our natural interactions with our pets, our words become conditioned reinforcers as well when they are associated with the delivery of good things. Establishing clear conditioned reinforcers can be very helpful in formal and informal training and behavior modification because they serve to mark the moment when we see a response that we like and communicate to the animal that he or she has behaved in a commendable way. For example, when I throw a toy into the woods for my rat terrier mix, Amelia, she may search around for awhile if she lost sight of it. If I see her in the area of the toy, I will say “Good girl!” and she will immediately focus on that spot, searching more carefully there for the toy. She has learned that “Good girl!” usually means she gets a treat or petting and so the words serve to let her know even in other situations that she is doing something good.

2) Conditioned punishers: words become conditioned punishers when they are associated with the delivery of something unpleasant or undesirable. For example, when we say “No” or “Ah ah” each time our dog jumps, we reduce the frequency of jumping as long as we associate the “No” with a timeout from attention. The timeout from attention may be the essential ingredient in reducing the jumping over time, but the “No” is given meaning during that process as well. Thus, in other contexts or in response to other behavior, we can say “No” and the dog will quit whatever he is doing at the time. For the many owners who complain that their dog has no concept of “No”, it’s often because the word itself has not been systematically associated with something that would matter to the dog. In such circumstances, the dog is not being intentionally defiant or dominant – he or she simply doesn’t understand the word in the way that we mean to be using it.

3) Discriminative stimuli: words become discriminative stimuli when they teach an animal that when they hear this word and respond accordingly, their behavior will be rewarded. When you call your dog to Come and provide praise and treat or a ball throw each time she comes, the word gains meaning because of the positive consequences that follow her coming when called. Most of what we call commands or cues are discriminative stimuli when they have been taught using positive reinforcement. Unintentional sounds can just as easily become discriminative stimuli as well. For example, when your cat comes running when she hears the electric can opener, it’s because the can opener sound has become a discriminative stimulus meaning, “Come to kitchen quick because food will be served!”

4) Neutral: words that are neutral are those that have no specific history of being repeatedly or systematically associated with anything of interest to the animal, and these words would be expected to produce no response at all. Most of our hundreds of thousands of spoken words each day pass right through our pets’ worlds, without even causing a lifted ear or a pause in play.

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