Throwaway Cues: A Casual Command Becomes a LifesaverPublished September 13, 2012
We all have casual cues we that use with our dogs every day without even realizing it. They’re the words that we never formally taught our dogs to understand, but time and repetition have made these simple cues nearly as strong as the ones we practiced with them in class. I had an incredibly lucky episode using one of these casual cues just this morning, and even though the word I used has been sort of a throwaway, it literally became a lifesaver.
Olive and Millie were at the store with me, and we took a quick walk across the street for a potty break. The cooler weather has brought the squirrels out again, so the ladies were patrolling the little grassy patch where all the neighborhood dogs do their business. Of course, each dog wanted to walk in the opposite direction, so I dropped Millie’s leash so that she could wander on her own. I didn’t think twice about letting her free in the small space, as the squirrel activity was concentrated against a high brick wall opposite the street, and the road was a cut-through without many cars. If she was going to dash, it would be right up to the wall and not towards the traffic.
Of course, a squirrel rustled in a bush right near the edge of the road. Millie turned to run for it, and as Murphy’s Law would have it, I heard a car coming down the road at the same time. “Wait!” I shouted. “Millie, WAIT.” And she did! She stopped in her tracks and looked over at me as if to say, “What’s wrong? Why so stressed?” I was amazed that her response to my casual “wait” cue was so precise. I usually use it when the ladies are getting ready to hop out of the car, to avoid them dashing out before I’m ready. I use it when we’re crossing the road as I look both ways, or when they come inside on a rainy day so I can wipe their paws … I basically use it all the time without even realizing it.
I didn’t teach it formally, but my consistency of use and breadth of applications made the word seep in to great effect. I’ve used the word “wait” with all of my dogs over the years - I even mentioned it in The Bark magazine a while back. The “wait” cue is easy to work into your everyday activities, and you can teach it as you go. Use your body to block your dog when you open the car door, say “wait,” pause for a moment until your dog is still then say “okay” and move out of the way so that your dog can exit the car. Say it before you cross the street, and don’t move until your dog is able to stand still. (Sometimes it helps to hold the leash taut, but make sure to loosen it for a moment before you say “okay” and begin walking, so that your dog is reacting to the release word and not just the slack in the leash.)
I learned a few lessons with Millie this morning, the most important being that you never know when a squirrel is going to go rogue! From now on I'm going to hold on to her leash when we do the potty stroll, and keep working on that "wait" cue every chance I get.