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Thursday, March 8, 2018

Getting Started with Touch Cues

There are two types of touch cues - these are cues that you give to your dog by touching various parts of his body in different ways, to mean different things.  If your dog can't see or hear you cues, touch cues give you the perfect way to begin communicating with him.  Having a way to communicate is crucial to living in harmony with your dog.  You can tell him what to expect to happen, and how you want him to respond.  And your dog will feel safe, calmer and more confident when these things are clear to him too, and he doesn't need to guess.

The two types of touch cues are information and request.  Information cues do just that - they give information.  These would be signs that tell your dog what is happening or going to happen.  Examples of these would be: mealtime, outside, grooming time, car ride, etc.  Request cues are used when you want to request a behavior from your dog - sit, lie down, come, stay, leave it, etc. When most people think about cues, they are thinking of request cues.  I've added information cues here too, because I believe they are very important.  

Dogs are always gathering as much information from their environment as they can.  Dogs that can hear may notice the jingle of your keys, hear the mail person's footsteps, or hear a knock on the door.  These sounds become cues to your dog - information cues. They let your dog know what is going on or is about to happen.  Dogs that can see are also very good at noticing information cues.  They may watch you putting your shoes on and know what the agenda is for the day.  Are you putting on running shoes, hiking boots, work shoes or fancy heels?  Dogs can learn the difference!  

Blind and deaf dogs will also learn some information cues from the environment, especially if you have other dogs that react to them.  But they miss out on key visual and auditory information cues that we can provide to them in the form of touch.  It's nice for them to know what's going to happen next.  

You may find when you first begin to use touch cues with your dog, that he startles or even moves away from you.  If no one has tried to communicate with him in this way before, this is all new and he won't understand at first.  But he will catch on quickly.  If you are also playing touch = food games with your dog, the startle should diminish quickly.  

As for going the other way, this is something I've noticed in some dogs.  When they are touched, they may react as if they have bumped into something, and they may quickly stop and go the other direction.  This also diminishes as the dog begins to realize that certain touches mean certain things.  But as he is learning, you can help steady him with a calm and steady touch with one hand while you give the new touch cue with the other hand.  By touching and steadying first, the initial surprise of the touch has time to dissipate and the dog is now better able to focus on the new touch cue. 

Don't try to name everything at once.  If this is a new way of communicating for you and your dog, you both need time to become familiar with the process.  You will need time to practice and remember the signs so they become automatic for you to use and give in a consistent manner.  Your dog will need time to learn what the new touches mean and to build his vocabulary.  Decide on one or two touch cues to start out with.  If you are starting with information cues, you can begin with going outside and mealtime, as these are two things that all dogs experience every day.  This will allow you both several opportunities every day to practice and for most dogs, these will be two experiences that they really like and look forward to.  They should pick up on the cues quickly.

When teaching information cues, you can use the chosen cue consistently immediately prior to and during the event that you're naming.  For example, if you are teaching the cue for outside, give it as you are at the door about to open it.  Then use it as you are opening the door and again as you are going out.  Eventually you will only need to use it once, and if you use it across the house, your dog will probably beat you to the door!  But for now, as you are introducing it, try to use it immediately prior to and during the event.  If you are introducing a cue for mealtime, give the cue as you already have the dog's food ready, and then again as you put the food bowl down.

When teaching request cues, it is best if you can to try to initiate the behavior first a few times without the cue, so you can be sure your dog is comfortable doing the behavior.  Once your dog is comfortable doing the behavior (luring into a sit position, for example), add the cue you will use just prior to helping the behavior to happen.  So the order would be, touch cue for sit, then lure dog into a sit, then reward and praise.  In this way, the dog will begin to anticipate and try to do the behavior on his own when he notices the cue.  This will allow you to stop using the lure as the dog learns to respond first to the cue.  

When dogs learn cues, they don't automatically differentiate between them.  It takes practice for the dog to learn to distinguish one cue from another, especially if they are not context specific.  If sometimes you ask the dog to sit, then down, or to shake hands, you may notice him sometimes "guessing" and giving the wrong behavior.  This is a normal part of learning.  Take time to practice, help the dog get it right, and reinforce a lot when he does!  

Try to keep the touch cues as clear as possible.  If cue delivery gets sloppy, the dog may interpret the cue as something else entirely.  This may be noticeable if the dog knows a lot of cues if those cues are given close together on the dog's body.  A sloppy cue can easily shift to another area of the body, which may be where a different cue is given.  Consistency is important if you want a consistent cue response. 

There are no set-in-stone touch cues that you should use.  Use whatever makes sense to you, because you will be the one who needs to remember them!  Be sure that other people in the home or that interact with your dog on a regular basis know the cues so everyone can be consistent.  If they are simple touches, such as a tap on the hips for sit, these can be listed and hung on the fridge.  If the cues are more complex, it may be helpful to video them.  This can be very helpful if you hire a dog walker or pet sitter.  It gives a clear record of how to communicate with your dog.  

I hope this has given you some tips on how to get started teaching touch cues.  Watch for follow-up posts showing some examples of touch cues that I use for my own blind deaf dogs.  

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