How to teach your dog to play violin at Carnegie Hall:

You’re standing behind a curtain, holding a violin on stage at Carnegie Hall. The curtain rises and you took out at a huge crowd chanting, “Play, play, play.” The audience thinks you’re the virtuoso du jour. “Wait,” you shout, hands raised to hush the crowd. “I don’t know how to play the violin.”

Then you wake up and realize you’d had a bad dream. Cheers and commands cannot make you do something you don’t know how to do. You roll out of bed and see your dog bounding recklessly toward you. “Stay, stay, stay!” you plead. And the dog barrels into you at high speed. He knows “Stay” like you know “Play.” Dogs, too, cannot do things on command unless they already know how to do them.

While dog trainers typically use a collar, their hands or treats to achieve a behavior, many shout commands like a general long before the animal knows how to respond. When the dog fails to perform, the trainer repeats the command louder. So the dog learns to ignore the first command and normal tone of voice. Consequently, it is labeled stubborn, stupid or inattentive. The dog is smarter than you think. Dogs have excellent hearing; yours probably knows the sound of your car, a can opener or a knock on the door. You may wonder how a dog could be this astute yet unable to make similar associations with your signals. The answer lies in how you teach the dog. Your dog can respond to you with the same zeal it has for the crinkling of a potato chip bag. You can even teach it without voice commands. That is because a dog can use any of its senses to connect a signal to any command it knows how to do. Here’s an experiment to test my statements.

  1. Place a small throw rug on the floor about five feet away from you. Toss a treat on the rug. As your dog steps onto the rug, say, “Good,” nothing more. Treats must be small and easy to chew because you should repeat this about 20 times. If your dog lingers around the area, drop a treat in front of you to get it to come back.
  2. Try another session of 20 repetitions. Between sessions, put a treat on the rug when the dog isn’t looking. Whenever you see the dog has discovered the treat, replace it. Now you will have created a fascination with the rug and are ready to make the behavior more complex. In essence, you have created a behavior without speaking.
  3. Do five quick repetitions of tossing the treat on the carpet. As the dog anticipates a sixth repetition, pre-tend to throw a treat and don’t do or say anything for at least a full minute. If the dog makes any move toward the rug, say, “Good” and toss a treat. Continue to wait out the dog over about 10 repetitions, trying to get it to go farther toward the rug on each attempt. If the dog is befuddled, go back to Step 2.

By now, you should be seeing this pattern:

  • The dog is a short distance from the rug and looking at you.
  • After about 20 seconds of staring, the dog moves toward the rug.
  • Once the dog is fully on the rug, you say, “Good,” in a normal tone of voice and toss a treat somewhere that forces it to move away from the rug. This causes the dog to leave the rug and resets the behavior.
  • The dog eats the treat and starts the routine again.

Voila! You have created a behavior while not giving a command – a behavior that no amount of chanting, ranting or yelling would have created. To put the finishing touch on this, let me explain how to connect a command that will allow you to get the behavior when ever you want it.

  1. Reinforce the behavior by starting another session and running two or three repetitions explained in Step 3.
  2. Add a step. As the dog goes toward the treat, say, in a normal tone of voice, “Go to your rug.” If it goes to the rug, say,
    “Good” and toss a treat. Repeat this step several times. If the behavior breaks down, stop talking and go back to Step 3. Say, “Go to your rug,” only once and in a normal tone of voice. Then wait quietly. Give your dog about 30 seconds to perform the Behavior. If it doesn’t, say “Wrong” in a normal tone of voice and try again.

Most importantly, be patient. You will be rewarded with a dog that knows the behavior before he learns the command that triggers it. You won’t have to say it over and over or yell the command. Now all you have to do is what everyone does in order to get to Carnegie Hall – practice, practice, practice.



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