(by Brianne Statz, CPDT-KA)
When we start working on sit and down in classes, we usually talk a bit about how dogs tend to rely most heavily on visual cues from us. They do of course learn lots of words too, but visual cues from us are the dog’s go-to signals. Check this out if you want a detailed summary of some of the research in this area - http://tinyurl.com/44f5669.
In class, we teach hand signals for sit, down, stand, heel, and more, but hand signals are really only one type of visual cue. Recently, I stumbled upon a new cue while working with my ever-energetic Aussie, Payton. I was working on establishing a “default” down. A default behavior is a position (often a sit or a down) that your dog should choose when unsure of what else to do. If you’re just standing there, not asking your dog to do anything specific, the default behavior is what they should choose. You train a default behavior by capturing it – just waiting for it to happen, then rewarding it. Apparently while waiting for these downs to happen, I was taking deep breaths, and Payton got my deep breath tied in with his downs. So now, based on my body language, he has a new cue for down. If I take a deep breath, he lies down.
While I didn’t start out to intentionally teach this, I love it! Payton can be a bit of a crazy man in certain situations. He sometimes gets over-aroused when he sees other dogs on walks, or if there are lots of children running around. Now if we find ourselves in an overly-stimulating situation, I can take a deep breath to calm myself down, and it also tells Payton to do a down (and if he’s doing a down, he’s not barking at the end of his leash!).
To summarize, your dog can easily pick up any sort of cue, so watch how your dog is interpreting your body language – who knows, you might discover a great cue like I did!