About ten years ago I worked on an artificial intelligence project at MIT. One of my first experiences there was to stand in a small room full of all kinds of devices. The professor that invited me to participate handed me a music conductor’s baton and asked me to move it in any repetitive way – side to side, up and down or circles. I started moving it side to side and about five seconds later I heard classical music moving to my pattern. If I moved faster, the beat of the music increased. If I moved it slower, the music slowed down.

The purpose of the project was to create a virtual dog and my music chamber was just one of the necessary ingredients to simulate what a dog does without thinking – connecting initially meaningless information to real events. That’s how they learn what it means when the doorbell rings and a thousand other things about living with humans. If you wish to know more about dogs this is where to start.

A dog’s brain works on several levels; they can hear, see, and feel, but other than a few limited instinctive associations, they have to work to connect events with consequences. Ivan Pavlov, the great physiologist, studied this extensively for more than 35 years. He said that it is not the sight of a predator that kills the prey, but the teeth and claws. If a rabbit waited for the teeth of the coyote to trigger escape there would be far fewer bunnies and much fatter coyotes. That means that the rabbit has to be able to connect the sight, smell, and sound of the coyote to danger. That takes us back to the front door. Dogs don’t automatically know that the doorbell marks an intruder; they have to learn it.

The topic of learned signals is critical for anyone who wants to get decent control over a dog’s behavior. That is why we teach dogs the meaning of words like sit, down, and come – most often, poorly. These associations, if correctly constructed, allow you to control the dog’s behavior in the real world.

There are two problems with this process. First, most people have no idea of the rules that govern connecting signals to events and, second, we don’t actually watch or listen to ourselves as we chant and wave our hands at our dogs. Learning the rules and being precise will dramatically improve your dog’s “obedience” and remove most of the miscommunication. If you want to improve communication with your dog, here are some basics to get you started.

Perceptible

Which ever signal you choose to control a behavior must be perceivable to your dog. That isn’t as obvious as it sounds. We assume that dogs have great hearing, vision, and smell, but those senses are actually conditional based on physiology. They are not universal and not always present.

For instance, dogs see best in dim light. That is because their ancestors hunted at dawn and dusk. In broad daylight, their eyes have trouble with high contrast. That means that if the dog is in front of you, looking upward, you look like a big, black silhouette. Unless your skin contrasts highly with what you are wearing, your dog may not be able to detect your movement. The simple solution is to use hand signals that include movement and change your silhouette. Look up the word “semaphore” and you’ll instantly see the logic.

Audible commands also have rules based on what a dog can perceive. Most people bark commands on the assumption that their words have to be forceful to be obeyed. A dog can hear a potato chip hit soft carpet at 20 feet. They don’t need to be yelled at – but they do need to hear the command, distinctly.

The best strategy is to teach all commands softly, up close. That is because, at a distance, the dog will always hear your voice muffled by air resistance. If you speak loudly up close, your dog may not recognize the command when it is more difficult to hear. If that surprises you, consider whether you flinch when you hear a police siren in the distance. Yes, you know what it means, but you don’t think it’s connected to you.

Unique: Moo Moo, Bee Bee, Yo Yo

All commands should be unique because dogs don’t speak English. The words above all have one thing in common. If you say them once, they have a different meaning than if you say them twice. Most people say a command multiple times because they have never taught the dog immediate response to any command. If you teach your dog that sit-sit is the command, they will never respond to a single occurrence of ‘sit’. That is because a bee isn’t the same thing as a bee-bee, though both things fly through the air and can sting you. The best rule is to never, never say it twice.

Predictability: The Door Bell Never Lies

The best dog trainer in the whole world lives at your front door. A six-dollar doorbell gets a 100% enthusiastic response on a first occurrence, even if the dog is in the far reaches of the house and barely hears it. The reason this is so is that the doorbell is perfectly predictable. Somebody pushed the button. Therefore someone is at the front door. Dogs either react happily to a guest or territorially. A few dogs are indifferent, but the front door is a powerful draw for the vast majority of dogs.

The doorbell works because there is a perfectly predictable consequence to its occurrence. This is the same as asking “Want a cookie” every time you start moving toward your dog’s treat jar. If you are consistent, the dog will acquire the signal rapidly. Any signal that can be predictably connected to a desired or undesirable outcome will be learned perfectly.

For instance, if you say “Nails!” before you trim your dog’s nails, and the dog hates having his nails trimmed, you have just created a very powerful negative association. If you say “Nails” you will see the real power of association that far transcends the common reaction to the word “No” – which is rarely connected to a tangible negative consequence.

To have some fun, you can test the strength of the association by comparing it to a similar learned connection. If your dog has learned “Nails” and also goes nuts at the front door, ring the doorbell and when the dog shows up to jump all over Aunt Martha, just say “Nails!” and watch him skedaddle. Then try it using the word “NO” and observe the difference.

Learning to teach your dog important sounds, sights, smells, and touches is a foundational training skill. Watch the way your colleagues and clients talk to dogs and you will further your education rapidly. You will be amazed at how many times they give commands compared to how often the dog obeys them. Don’t be surprised if you catch yourself giving a hand-signal that cannot be perceived, or you find yourself chanting sit-sit-sit and getting nada-nada-nada. The secret of commands and signals is simple; make sure your dog can see it, hear it, feel it, and only give it once.