Clear Communication is Key: How Props Help Explain Criteria to Your Dog

November 28, 2020

Dogs communicate with each other largely by using body language.  Do you run agility with your dog?  Have you ever run toward the tunnel screaming “teeter, teeter!!!”?  We’ve all done that at some point, and what does the dog do?  He doesn’t run away from the tunnel and go find the teeter!  He’s going into the tunnel anyway, because your body language supports that.

Have you ever taught your dog to back up by walking toward your dog?  I bet your dog is pretty good at backing, right?  Next time, try to stand in one place, without moving toward the dog, and see how that goes!  Most dogs will act like they’ve never heard the cue before!  The reason this happens is moving toward your dog has become a major part of the cue for the behavior.  Take that body pressure away and the dog has no idea what the verbal means.

Setting up the dog to do a precision behavior, like a front, often takes a lot of fiddling to get the dog straight.  The dog quickly learns to rely on that extra luring and body language with your hands.

Dogs Pick Up On Body Language

Here is a video of me luring Excel into the front position.  It’s difficult for me to get him perfectly straight and notice all that body language that I’m having to give him.  Further, I’m doing the work for him by luring him into position with the treat and my hands, so he’s not really thinking about what he’s doing.  He’s focused on my hands and not my face, where he should be focusing.  Do you see how I’m not able to do a good job communicating with him what I want?

Compare that to this next video, in which I use a prop, a sit platform, to show my dog exactly what I’m looking for.  The sit platform has already been trained and he is very comfortable on it.  This video was taken the same day (just minutes apart) as the last one.

In this video, look at how still I am able to be, with my hands at my sides.  Excel’s attention is focused upward on my face.  He knows exactly what his job is.  Now I can go right to practicing correct repetitions of this behavior and putting a lot of reward history on the accurate behavior.  The presence of the prop eliminates most of the work needed to get the dog straight.


Generalizing Behaviors

Another advantage of using props is they help you generalize the behavior.  For many behaviors, such as fronts, you can use a variety of props to show the dog the same picture.  By doing this, the dog doesn’t only learn how to do the behavior with one particular prop.  I find using different props makes the process of fading go much more smoothly.

I believe fading a prop is much easier than fading extraneous body movements and cues.  When you use a prop, your dog is seeing what you will look like in the final behavior, which can be very helpful.


Props are Prompts and Need to Be Faded

Props are prompts, meaning they are something your dog will see that will cue a behavior, simply because of their presence.  If you use the sit platform for the first three years of your dog’s life for fronts before taking it away, your dog is going to really struggle because the prop has always prompted the behavior.  Knowing how and when to fade the props is really important if you are going to use them to teach behaviors.  Before you fade the prop, you will want to ensure that the following statements are true.

  • There is great value attached to the behavior/position
  • The behavior is consistent and predictable
  • You have attached a verbal cue to the behavior

Once you have done these things, it’s time to fade the prop.  During this time, it’s important that our body language stays the same as it was throughout the training process, which is hopefully the same as it should look in the ring.

If you’re looking for clean and precise obedience and rally behaviors, check out the exciting world of props!  You have nothing to lose except precision!

Does your dog constantly offer behaviors when you just want them to be still?

Welcome to my brand new class, “Better Still: Stays Without Frustration,” a class designed for dogs who thrive on activity and are eager to please but struggle with stillness.

This class will address the common challenges of dogs who love to offer behaviors in anticipation of feedback from their handler. We will transform that movement into stillness by teaching your dog to find calmness and confidence in doing nothing.

You’ll learn how to build duration in stillness, gradually increasing the time your dog can maintain focus and calm without the need for constant feedback. By reinforcing the concept that quietness equals correctness, we aim to cultivate stillness in your dog without the need to offer movement.

Registration opens on July 22nd and class starts on August 1st! 

1 Comment

  1. Jessie Holloway

    Thanks so much for talking about and showing how dogs understand and respond to body language. My aunt got a new dog and she wants to make sure she takes proper care of him. We’ve been looking into getting him into professional dog training to help them both learn and understand each other.


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