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— March 5, 2013 —

Icons, Triggers and Impulse Control —
Keys to understanding your dog’s problem behavior. Part 2.
by Daniel McElroy Jr.

Last week, we started a series on understanding your dog’s problem behaviors. This week, we’ll dig a little deeper into the idea of Icons and how they relate to your dog’s behavior.

The dictionary definition if Icon lists a few different meanings. One is: A painting of Christ or another holy figure, used as an aid to devotion in church ceremonies (not terribly applicable to your dog). The other is: A person or thing regarded as a representative symbol of something else (getting closer). The one I am most interested in is this one that actually relates to Computer Science: A picture on a screen that represents a specific file, directory, window option or program (bingo!). So there you have it. An Icon is a visual image that represents an option, thing or behavior.

I see it all the time. A dog is misbehaving and their people are trying to have conversations with their dogs to get them to stop. “Come here and behave, stop doing that and calm down!” would be a common one. The problem with talking to a dog like this is none of it makes any sense to the dog. Think back to last week’s article. If you remember that your dog “reads” the world as a series of Icons, you’ll understand why talking to them in long strings of words will never work to correct problem behavior. The example of the WALK sign at the street crossing is a perfect analogy. It’s simple and very easy to understand. This Icon-based communication is what your dog needs in order to understand what you want from him. Icons, by definition, are very brief, very direct and very specific.

As you work with your dog, keep this in mind. Your dog has almost zero capacity for understanding English…or French or German for that matter. Language is a very human-specific phenomenon and no other member of the animal kingdom has the capacity for language that we humans have. While dogs do vocalize, their vocalizations are more like laughing and crying than what we think of as speech. The sounds have meanings which we understand, but they are not language. When we teach our dog a command, we are artificially attaching a behavior to a sound. Be it English, German or the sound of a treat bag opening, the dog has attributed a meaning to a sound, but it is not perceiving the same meaning that we humans do. The first associations a dog makes are usually visual. A dog will learn to sit easily if we use a treat and raise it up over a its head. The head goes up, the butt goes down. Pretty quickly, the visual cue (Icon) of the hand coming up causes the dog to sit. Once the dog makes the connection to the visual cue, we can attach the meaning of words to behaviors.

An example of this is Blue, a young pitbull that I have in for training. He is just starting and we are working on “Come” and “Sit”. Yesterday, I had the owner walking backwards to get the puppy to come towards him and have him “Sit” when he got close enough. I noticed that if dad was fumbling with his leash, the puppy would not sit when asked, but if dad was all set up properly, not tangled up in the leash, the puppy would sit right away. Why was this? It was because if dad was fumbling with his leash, he could not reach out with his hand. He had been training with treats and baiting his dog with the treat. The puppy had learned the meaning of the raised hand, but was paying no attention to the word “Sit.” I had the owner demonstrate this by repeating the exercise and making a point to NOT raise his hand. The puppy didn’t sit, then I had him repeat the exercise while raising his hand, but not saying a word. Blue promptly sat. This is a very normal stage in training and we will ultimately have him sitting for the word only. It was just a great example of this Icon principle in action.

Another example of this is when I teach the “Down” command. With a puppy, I will often teach the down after the dog learns to sit. I do this by sitting cross-legged on the floor with the puppy in front of me and having the puppy sit. I then drop a tasty treat just out of the puppy’s reach and hold him back by the leash. (If you pull the puppy straight down into the position, you will inevitable get resistance which is better avoided.) If the puppy really likes the treat, they will pull towards it and stretch out trying to reach it. They will usually scamper towards the treat until they end up on their belly. (A hardwood floor helps in the process.) As soon as their belly touches the floor, I deliver the treat. In no time, the puppy learns that having his belly on the floor gets the treat. They start to lay down as soon as I drop the food. This is when I start to attach the word, “Down.” The puppy’s visual reference is so specific, however, that if I simply go from sitting to kneeling on the floor, they loose track of the exercise. When I drop the treat, they will generally no longer lay down. Just changing my position can change the Icon and the puppy may not respond in the same manner.

Getting back to Sidney from last week’s Tail. While the situation is more complex than teaching a simple command, Sidney simply reads the situation and reacts to it. In helping her mom cope with Sidney’s reaction to Bella, my first thought is to get both dogs to my facility. This is because if I can change the visual reference, it will probably change the Icon or eliminate it all together. If we can get both dogs into a different location, the chances of a bad reaction will go down considerably. Once the dogs have become familiar with each other in a different setting, the chances of them interacting better at home increases. Of course, it may take a number of positive meetings to counter Sidney’s conditioned reaction to the sight of Bella in the hall.

Most bad behaviors, like Sidney’s, take time to develop. They become part of a pattern and the key to fixing the issue is to break the pattern and help the dog learn to react differently. Using the fact that the dog reacts to such specific cues can help us break patterns of bad behavior. Once you understand the cues, you can start to prompt a different response.