How to Use Warning Cues

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA,
November 3, 2011

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It's not too hard to teach your dog to accept annoying human behaviors such as brushing his teeth (the dog's, I mean), putting in ear drops, and even giving shots. The basic idea is to go slow and pair every aspect of the procedure with a tiny, deluxe treat.

On Day 1, you might just show your dog a toothbrush and then immediately give him a bit of roast chicken. A dozen reps later, he'll be looking for that chicken every time he sees the toothbrush. On Day 2, you might bring the toothbrush close to his mouth a dozen times, and give him chicken each time. And so on, step by step, till you're brushing away and your dog is perfectly happy about it.

But, uh-oh, suppose you haven't taught your dog that ear drops = chicken, and now he's got an ear infection and needs drops put in 5 times a day? Suppose he needs daily allergy shots? Suppose he needs a bandage changed? What do you do then?

Most of us, in this situation, just wing it -- we try to sneak up on our dogs and get the job done as fast as we can. But for a client of the Swedish trainers Eva Bertilsson and Emelie Johnson Vegh, that tactic backfired: her dog started avoiding her all day, even when the eardrops weren't coming. Whenever the client headed in the dog's direction, the dog slunk away. The client couldn't take time to get her dog over the fear of eardrops -- she needed the medication. But the poor dog was scared all the time, and the client's heart was breaking. What to do?

Bertilsson and Vegh came up with a brilliant move: they had their client warn her dog when eardrops were on the way.