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Nobody likes a nag!

Someone had to say it! Please please please, stop nagging your dog. On one end of the leash there is an unengaged, distracted, maybe overwhelmed, maybe triggered, maybe fearful *insert anything else here* dog, and on the other end, there is an increasingly frustrated owner repeating their dog's name or cue in louder and ever grumpier tones. Max. Max. Max! MAX! MAAXXX!! - he heard you the first time.


Not only is nagging annoying for the receiver, but there are some genuine reasons why it may be inhibiting your dog's training progress. Hear me out.

To us, a name is an identifier, it’s something personal and special. Hannah is me and I am Hannah. To a dog, their name is a cue like any other trick or skill you’ve taught them. Typically, it’s a cue that means ‘look at me’ or ‘pay attention’ or ‘come here’. However, in order for a cue to be a strong and reliable predictor of the correct behaviour, we have to train it and use it in a way that encourages it to get stronger over time - not weaker. To do this, we first try to ‘safeguard’ our cues, and only use them when we’re ‘pretty sure’ they’re going to be successful, that way we’re making sure the correct behaviour follows the cue. It’s how we teach verbal cues in the first place. We teach a behaviour silently, and then we ‘label’ the behaviour with a verbal word, pairing the two together. We also want the dog to have the correct association with the cue. We want them to KNOW that x cue means that if they do y behaviour, they’ll get z consequence from us. I know when I hear a Mr Whippy van that if I bolt out of my house with a $5 note, I’ll be able to score myself a sherbet dunked soft serve. It feels good to hear the song the van plays because the future after the word is predictable and clear and reinforcing for me.

So what happens if the word gets said many many many times, out of trained contexts, with no consequence (good or bad) as a result? The word gets diluted. It starts to become background noise. You literally train them to ignore it.

We also have to take into consideration social conflict and competing motivations or stressors. If I’m just chilling out in the lounge, doing not a whole lot, and Lewis asks me to help him with something on his laptop - I’m in the correct environment and state of mind to respond to his bid for attention, offer my full focus and respond as requested. Easy peasy. Of course, I’ll help! But if I was in the middle of a zoom call with a client, and I had an intense headache, and it was raining really hard outside so I was struggling to hear my client, and THEN Lewis comes in and goes Hannah, Hannah, HANNAH, HANNAAAHHHH - that request for attention will probably go beyond annoying, it’ll be stressful and aversive. If the same thing happens repeatedly in different contexts, where he bids ‘Hannah?’ and keeps nagging when I don't respond because I’m busy or overwhelmed - I’m very quickly going to start associating ALL of Lewis’ bids for my attention as something that feels yucky, and my automatic response is going to slowly become a negative one, not a positive one. UGH JUST LEAVE ME ALONE. It’s not really the kind of relationship we want with our dogs.

So imagine the same thing with your dog. You’re walking along the street and they spot a dog across the road, or one starts barking behind a fence at them, or they get spooked by a loud bus that goes past and they try to bolt. If you ask them to do something - ‘leave it!’ or ‘Fido come!’ And they don’t do it the first time, before you repeat it a million times, take a moment and consider why they didn’t respond.

I like this list from Jean Donaldson’s ‘The Culture Clash’
  1. WHAT: Do they not know what the cue means and/or has it not been generalised to this exact context sufficiently?

  2. WHY: Have you now or in the past not provided sufficient motivation for it to be worth their time?

  3. OTHER OPTIONS: Are there too many competing motivations pulling at your dog's attention at that moment?

What can you do differently, both right now and in preparation for next time that’s going to help them cope or engage better?

  • Maybe you need to up your rate or value of reinforcement?

  • Maybe you need to not put them in such difficult environments just yet?

  • Maybe you need to start teaching them how to engage around environmental distractions?

The answer will be different for every dog, but I promise you, the answer will likely never be ’nag them more’.

Here's a video where I'm working with Richie when he was really worked up and unable to give me much engagement. Count how many times I ASK him to do something and note what I do instead -


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