Whispers and Winks: Cues for the Baby Friendly Dog

It has been quite interesting to really hone in on the behaviors I need Ranger to know to live politely with a baby, and I’ve had some thoughts bubbling in my mind like porridge that may be useful to other trainers or families searching for ways to integrate their furry and less-furry family members.

I’m going to touch on just one in this post, but it is reaches across every behavior, and it is clear how important this is!

Training your dog to respond to cues in real-life, imperfect conditions is vital when you have a baby.

First, you have to generalize the cue.

When you read the dog training books they say, “try to say the cue while lying on the floor! try it standing on your head! say it loudly and quietly!” and it’s a fun little game to experiment with, but you really don’t NEED to tell your dog to sit while standing on your head eating JELL-O wearing a clown nose very often, so it’s more an amusing play-training thing to pass the time and just sharpen up the behavior a little. I touched on this very subject in an earlier post on proofing, and I’m returning to it as I have been continually reminded by Ranger himself how important it is for our most needed, high usage behaviors to work in ANY situation.

When you have a baby, that generalization is vital.

Here’s a bit more detail by Melissa Alexander on what generalization is, but the short of it is this: dogs don’t magically know that ONLY our word or hand signal is relevant to their behavior.  For many dogs, “Sit” means “If my owner is in front of me standing up holding a clicker with her treat bag on her hip and she leans over a little and says “SIT!!” while moving her hand up in the air, and I sit, then I get my reward!”

That is exhausting to type out and it’s even more exhausting to take each of those evil little invading Particles of Irrelevancy and zap them away like Space Invaders.

space invaders photo: Space Invaders SpcInv.png

Second, you may have to teach several versions of a cue

Ranger ALSO needs to learn that sometimes the word or hand signal may look sound or look a little different but it still means the same thing. That can be boggling for dogs, too! And it has to be intentionally trained; we can’t blame our dogs if “BLANKET!!” and “blanket.” seem like completely different cues at first. It’s not Ranger’s fault if a hand signal I am giving will look different when I’m half-trapped under a baby, or with my shoulder slightly hindered by a sling:

baby in sling

Here’s the catch – this isn’t “perfect” training from a scientific perspective. From that perspective, the cue itself should be exactly the same every. single. time.

But it’s necessary when you have a baby.

When you have a baby and she is finally asleep and you are reclined on the couch in a state of partial undress with your left arm delicately balancing her chubby cheeks JUST SO or else she’ll wake up, you cannot jump in front of your dog and grab your training paraphernalia and yell BLANKET!! when he comes bouncing into the room.

You have to be reclined, in a crazy weird position, and w.h.i.s.p.e.r.i.n.g. the cue.  And your dog still needs to listen.

So this is why we are still working on the “same” behaviors we started out with instead of counting them as done.  Yes, your dog can Sit. I know it only took you ten minutes. Yes, Ranger can Sit.  The motion did not take him long, either.  But there is much more needed to make a behavior truly fluent.

Ranger is also learning to Sit, Drop, and Blanket when I’m whispering, when I’m leaning back in the chair, when I’m holding a tiny person, when I’m sitting on the floor next to the playgym, when I’m wearing a baby and my hand signal looks a little funny, when I’m not holding a treat and not holding a clicker… and honestly, some of this is a little boring and it takes time.

It can be frustrating.  When I tell him “Blanket” and he does it perfectly, and then I move one foot further away and rotate a little and tell him “Blanket” and he lies down and stares at me, I sometimes gnash my teeth. But I know that he is just experimenting and trying to figure out what really matters, and what it means, and he has really made leaps and bounds both performing the behaviors with differences in my distance from him, my physical position, and my volume, as well as learning to discriminate between the different cues.

So, yes, we have been a little slow adding on new behaviors, although we did start Leave It this week, and he is doing great! But in my limited allotted time, I think that getting those foundation behaviors as absolutely fluent and generalized as possible is vital. Because I want them to be useful. Because I want Ranger to be able to live in the house with us without being a nuisance.

And because when you have a baby, those awkward, sprawling, arm-is-numb cuddle naps are something to protect and cherish.  Because when you have a baby, they never seem to stay babies for quite as long as you would like them to.

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