Sometimes I feel that a cue from me is completely unnecessary. There are several behaviors I teach my dogs without asking them for anything and, once the behavior is taught, I still don’t put a cue word to it. Most of these are impulse control behaviors; things I want my dogs to do on their own without my input. Oftentimes, the environment itself is a cue even though there is no visual or verbal instruction from me.
One such behavior is waiting at doorways. When I first teach this behavior, it involves a lot of waiting and patience on my part. I stand by the doorway and wait for the dog to place her butt on the floor in a sit. As soon as the dog sits, I reach for the doorknob. If she breaks position, I pull my hand back and wait some more. I gradually increase the criteria to the point where I expect the dog to sit calmly as I turn the knob, open the door, and step outside.
I don’t ask for a sit at any time during this training. I just wait for it to happen. I feel it’s very important for the dog herself to figure out what makes the door open and stay open so that, when released, she can go outside. This way, I know she knows what is expected of her because she determined it on her own without any prompting from me. Along with that, the door opening becomes a cue for waiting patiently and not bolting outside. If I’m not around and a door is open, it’s less likely my dog will rush outside and go for a jaunt around the neighborhood. This skill is especially helpful if you have other members in the household who may not be as careful about keeping doors closed as you are!
I use the same method to teach a wait at other doors as well. When she’s in the car or in her crate, I expect her to wait to be released even if the door is open already.
The same goes for food bowl manners. I expect my dogs to wait in a sit until released to eat their food. This makes it easier for me to dish out the food and helps teach self-control (a vital skill!). Much like teaching the wait at doors, I hold the food bowl and wait for the dog to sit. When she does, I slowly move the food bowl towards the floor. If she breaks position, the food goes back up and I start the wait again. I gradually increase the criteria until I can place the food on the floor in front of the dog and walk out of the room without her digging in before I release her.
Probably one of the most unexpected things I don’t cue is eye contact. While I did initially train Risa a cue that meant “Look at me,” I just stopped using it. Her name itself is a cue that means “Look at me. I need your attention” so I found that an additional cue is a bit unnecessary. On top of that, however, I prefer it to be a default behavior. When in doubt, look at Mom. I shocked one of our instructors in our rally class when I told her I don’t have a “Watch me” cue. 😉
I heavily reward eye contact. I also vary the way I reward it; sometimes using food, toys, or environmental rewards. Eye contact, for me, is also a way of teaching the dog to ask for permission. If I’m holding a treat in my hand, eye contact could get me to give the dog the treat. Staring at me is one way to get me to throw a toy. I reward it so much that it becomes a default behavior: something the dog offers when she’s not sure what to do. This has been incredibly helpful in dealing with Risa’s reactivity and working with the pup on her desire to meet every person and dog she sees.
With reactive dogs, I can be very difficult for them to turn away from the thing that frightens them. I don’t recommend cuing a fearful dog to “Watch me” especially in the early stages of training. Your dog really needs to trust you a LOT to take their eyes off the scary thing. However, if your dog has eye contact as a default behavior, they may very well offer it in the presence of a trigger knowing that it’s something they’re bound to get rewarded for.
All of these behaviors are critical when working with my dogs. Hence why I stress the importance of the dogs figuring it out by themselves without a lot of information from me. It’s also important for the dogs to understand what to do without me having to tell them all the time. 😉