Dogs Are Stupid; So Are People

Honey the Golden Retriever hops on a log at Ithaca Falls

I thought “hop” meant get into my bike cart. You’re awfully unclear, woman.

Okay, maybe stupid is a little harsh.

How about distactible? Or easily confused?

The point is, if you want a dog to understand you, talk simply. And if you want a person to understand you, do the same thing.

Dog Training Cues

Look at any list of the most important behaviors to teach your dog. What are the common cues to signal a dog you want her to do something?

  • Come
  • Wait
  • Stay
  • Sit
  • Paw

We’ve all learned that our dogs listen better when we use a short cue, and the same cue, all the time.

A dog who hears “get over here,” “come,” “c’mere,” or “hey you” may or may not understand you want him to come to you. But if you use the same cue every time and pair it with positive experiences, your dog will develop a reliable recall (unless, of course, he’s a hound and just found a really good smell—pick your battles).

Training People

You might think teaching people is very different. After all, humans are capable of abstract thought.

But the barriers to communication with a dog also hinder humans—emotions, distractions, and lack of understanding.

I’ve taught first home buyers for the past 7 years. And most of them will describe their emotions using the exact same word: overwhelmed.

It’s my job to keep the message simple. Basically, you are important. You deserve to have your questions answered. If they aren’t, find someone else to help you.

All the other stuff I cover in a class-—improving your credit, how a fixed rate and adjustable rate loan works, negotiating a purchase offer—are far less important. If my students leave my class feeling empowered and able to ask smart questions, everything else should work out.

But sometimes I forget. I talk as if everyone can absorb thousands of ideas instead of distilling my words into concise talking points.

And I always regret it.

I was recently interviewed by our local weekly newspaper. And the resulting article feels like a hot mess. I blathered on and forgot that people can only understand a few key ideas (or training cues, if you like).

A disaster? No. But certainly a missed opportunity.

Honey the Golden Retriever on the log at Ithaca Falls

Surely you can think of a better cue than “hop up on the log, walk a few steps, and then sit down.” That’s really complicated.

Good For Dogs; Good for People

Because I love Honey, I want her to succeed. I teach her a cue. The cue is simple. I use it every time.

I don’t actually think she’s stupid. I think she’s smart. And part of being smart is having a brain that knows how to sort through useless information to figure out what’s most important.

But I can also help her brain by not giving her worthless information to begin with.

It’s the same with the first home buyers I teach. Taking a class to understand a complex and expensive deal is very smart.

I don’t have to babble on for hours to impress them with all I know. I simply need to speak clearly and simply, use easy cues, and help them ask the right questions.

Monday Mischief

Steve Martin did a bit in his stand up act where he told people whenever they were around a little child to talk wrong. That way, when the kid started school and had to use the bathroom, he’d raise his hand and say, “May I mamoo dogface to the banana patch?”

I did something similar with Honey. But the trick isn’t on her. It’s on everyone else.

The cue I use when I want Honey to greet people calmly is “Four on the floor.” Most people repeat, “Don’t jump” which means nothing to Honey.

But I love watching their faces when I saw “four on the floor” and Honey’s paws become glued to the ground.

I like to think Honey enjoys a little bit of mischief too.

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  1. Great stuff to remember, I would love to see peoples reaction too. That would be awesome.

  2. Good teachers learn how to say the same thing 15 different ways because everyone learns differently. Sounds like you are a good teacher. :)

    • Thanks, Leslie. You’re right that there are as many ways to learn as there are teachers.

      I’ve found that people learn the most by teaching. I’ve restructured most of my classes so the students are teaching themselves instead of listening to me lecture. Now if only I could get my guest speakers on the same page. :)

  3. So very true. When I was a trainer, I always strived to keep it simple. The more complicated you get the more you lose people. I always watch people’s face expressions too. That way if I am getting too complicated I can see it and change my approach immediately.
    Live the all four on the floor. My dogs aren’t big jumpers, but I may have to introduce that one!

    • Human and canine faces are so expressive, aren’t they? I’ve seen both my home buyer students and dogs wrinkle their brows when I’m going over their head.

      BTW, do you find people are more likely to get confused in a training than the dog?

      Most people giggle when they hear me tell Honey “four on the floor.” But, if your dogs don’t jump, give an offering to the canine gods and find another cute cue to use. :)

  4. Love the title and we think training peeps is so impawtant. Have a marvelous Monday.
    Best wishes Molly

  5. Excellent point. I try to teach my puppy buyers the same thing. How seriously they take in the information tells me whether they are the people I want to take a puppy home. I expect new puppy parents to view their charge’s intellectual and emotional make-up as seriously as they view coast and breed standards.

    • Your words remind me of working with Honey’s breeder over many months. I’m an information junkie so being asked to respond to an essay she sent me or discuss new information about the timing for spay and neuter didn’t daunt me too much.

      But I’m sure she’s had plenty of people who thought they wanted a puppy until they saw the complexity of how a responsible breeder wanted them to think about the responsibilities of having a puppy.

      You’re right that sharing complex information can also be a form of gatekeeping that helps you make sure your puppies are going to homes with people who are committed to responsible raising.

  6. This definitely hits home as I had to try to help my 86 yr old mom learn to use a new phone, new cable box and new CD player this weekend. Was trying my best to keep it simple!

    • This made me grin.

      My 70 year old parents have cable, TIVO, something called Sky Angel (religious broadcasting), and an antenna. They have three or four remote controls. My husband and I who are tv luddites have no idea how to turn their equipment on to catch the weather report.

      I guess they need to learn some simple explanations for dunderheads like us. :)

  7. I love that “Four on the Floor” cue! That’s great — and shows some creative thinking! I usually just use “off” or “no” as I turn away from one of my dogs. Of course, at 8-1/2 and 8, Callie & Shadow know not to jump up on people (including Mom). They know not to but still do it anyway, sometimes. (Callie’s hip arthritis keeps all 4 of her feet on the floor most of the time.) Ducky is another story — she’s still a puppy (well, adolescent) and learning her manners, but she’s a fast learner. I just use “off” with her for just about everything — furniture, people, cabinet doors, whatever.

    • When you have a young dog, “off” just becomes a reflex, doesn’t it?

      I once read about a woman who taught her Irish Wolfhounds they could jump up on her as long as she was wearing pants. The knew not to do it when she was wearing a dress or a skirt.

      Unfortunately, she never figured out how to teach them to distinguish between jeans and dress pants. :)

  8. Words to live by! Where were you when I needed this talk last week before I complicated my whole photo shot? Geesh, I had props and everything!

  9. I work at an outdoor retailer and they stress simple, or rather, don’t give too many choices. They say to ask the customer enough questions to determine what they needs are and then present them with THREE product choices. More than that and people start to get confused and will “do nothing” (not buy). The same holds true for dogs. Give them too many words and things start to become confusing for them….so agreed :)

    • I hadn’t thought of the retail aspect of this. Most stores have so many choices and I know that I’ve walked out more than once being confronted with too many choices, none of them just so.

  10. I keep the same practice when I’m at school. I use the words for what I want the kids to do because “don’t” isn’t a concrete concept, so saying “don’t run” really flashes the word “RUN” in their young brains. Instead, I say “walk” which is really what I want. Even though I know that, sometimes it’s hard to remember to do it, especially in the heat of the moment!

    • So smart. And I like the emphasis on telling kids what they can do instead of what they can’t. It’s sort of like dog trainers telling us to ask her dogs for an incompatible behavior. They can’t jump if they’re already sitting.

      Do you mind if I steal your idea for a future post and credit you for the inspiration?

  11. I love coming up with creative cues for things! One of my favourite dog tricks is getting Shiva to lift her leg when I say “pee on it.” The words have nothing to do with urination to her but the expression on people’s faces is priceless.

    Congratulations on the news article! I don’t think it was a mess at all. Maybe I am biased but I thought you did a great job of outlining the class and your experience. It’s hard when you have so much information you want to convey and a limited space to do it in. Simplicity is not something that comes natural to me either.

  12. And is getting a female dog to lift her leg a feminist statement? And, even if it’s not, can I tell myself it is because it amuses me? :)

    Thanks for the encouragement with the news article. I guess someone agrees with you because I got a call yesterday from a television reporter who wants to interview me on the same topic.

    As for simplicity, some people tolerate nuance and complexity better than others. They’re called history or philosophy majors. :)