Pavlov, What’s in a name?

What’s in a name? To a dog, nothing. Naturally, dogs have no concept of this human idea, however they can learn to associate meaning with the vocal patterns we say. It’s important to understand how dogs learn and process verbal information to troubleshoot training obstacles and performance criteria. Dogs are nonverbal creatures, meaning they communicate primarily through body language. However they can learn to recognize vocal patterns and their association with events and behaviors. Our verbal language means very little to dogs so it is our responsibility to give our dogs a reason to care about the words we say. We can’t expect a dog to know the meaning of “sit” or “come” if they were never formally trained to respond to the cue.

To help your dog to succeed with vocal pattern recognition, be careful to be consistent. Say your cues one time, and pause for a while, if you do not receive the desired response, reset and begin again. Do not say your verbal cues more than once or the dog will come to recognize the pattern in multiples. If you have to say sit 3 times before your pet sits, they are not recognizing the word “sit” they are recognizing the word “sitsitsit”, they do not understand that you are looking for them to identify one piece of the word salad we throw at them as the important information, and will come to rely on you to say the full phrase before getting a response. From your perspective, you will always have to repeat yourself to get your pet to sit, from your pet’s perspective, they wait to hear the full information before performing the behavior. What is commonly described as stubbornness, is most commonly a cultural misunderstanding that is highly preventable.

Keep in mind that your dog is also associating your tone with the vocal pattern while learning, be as consistent as possible. Changing the tone, can change how recognizable the vocal pattern is to the dog. Shouting out of frustration or using demanding tones is likely to only confuse your pet. Other members of the family have different pitch and inflection. Have everyone practice so that the dog learns to recognize cues from each member of the family. Over time your pet may learn to generalize and respond to similar patterns, but this process takes time.

Ivan Pavlov is a Russian Physiologist, famous for his work in classical conditioning with dogs. Classical conditioning is a process of learning wherein specific stimuli are paired together to create meaning to the learner. For example, in his famous experiments, Pavlov was able to condition dogs to salivate (drool) at the sound of a bell. He did this by pairing the sound of the bell with food. Every time the bell rang, food would appear immediately afterward. Soon, in the mind of the dogs, the bell came to be synonymous with food and the dogs would salivate in anticipation at the sound. Classical conditioning works to create a reflex, a behavior that happens automatically.