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Hurry Up and Wait!

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Those of you with exuberant, fast-thinking dogs: Imagine that your dog is offering solid repetitions of a new behavior and that you’re ready to attach a cue. But, before you get a chance to give your cue, your warp-speed dog forges ahead and offers the behavior in anticipation of a click/treat—again and again. He won’t let you get a word in edgewise! Now what?

In the early stages of attaching a cue, it’s common for a dog to anticipate and offer a behavior before you ask for it—especially if you have not trained a specific default behavior for the dog. The dog has been reinforced at a rapid rate many, many times for doing a certain behavior. And now, all of a sudden, you ask him to break his familiar rhythm, notice the brand-new cue that you are introducing, and wait to perform the heavily reinforced behavior until after he perceives the brand-new cue!

When you are teaching dogs to wait for a cue, it’s easy to forget that waiting itself is a behavior, and a pretty tough one at that! You are asking the dog to stand/sit motionless, with full attention on you until you give further instruction. That’s a lot to ask of an eager dog! When you first attach a cue to a new behavior, you are interrupting the previously established rhythm of the training session by adding another few steps into the sequence. Rather than “Behavior, click, treat” then “Behavior, click, treat,” the new sequence looks like this: “Dog waits for cue, trainer gives cue, behavior, click, treat.”

There are many ways to help a dog learn the concept “wait until I give you the cue before you do that behavior.” Here’s a quick method: if you have a previously established “wait” behavior, use it to your advantage! A great way to isolate the cue for a new behavior is to insert your “wait” cue just before you ask the dog to perform the new behavior. So, it’s “wait, (dog waits), new cue (dog does new behavior), click/treat!” The opportunity to do the behavior is the reinforcer for “wait,” and the click/treat is the reinforcer for the behavior. Be sure to click/treat the dog for the “waits” sometimes as well, so that behavior on its own continues to pay off for the dog.

Now, here’s the cool part: You’ll probably find that after you’ve reinforced the dog for the “wait” behavior three or four times, he will start to anticipate. Dog: “She’s just going to ask me to wait, so I might as well go ahead and wait first.” Perfect! He has just offered the behavior of “wait for the cue” all on his own, which is exactly what you wanted in the first place. Soon you can probably fade out having to say the word “wait” every time you issue the cue for the new behavior. The wait will come on its own.

This is one instance where a dog’s tendency to anticipate what you want can work to your advantage, because you now have the sequence of events you’re looking for: “wait for the cue, new cue, behavior, click/treat.” You are also continuing to strengthen the dog’s reinforcement history for waiting. Every time the dog waits successfully, he is given the opportunity to perform a behavior for a click/treat.

Using a properly trained “wait” cue also gives the dog something to do, rather than throwing in other well-known behaviors, trying to guess what’s going to make you click.

Once your dog has experienced some success using the cue “wait,” you can try rotating among the new behavior and other known behaviors as well. So, it might be “sit” (dog sits), click/treat, new behavior cue (dog does this), click/treat, “down” (dog downs), click/treat.”

All of this training will help strengthen the dog’s understanding that he should wait to hear a cue first in order to earn reinforcement for a given behavior. Give it a try next time you’re attaching a cue to a new behavior. Offering your dog something to do in that brief moment before you issue the new cue can cut down on confusion and frustration—for him and for you.

About the author
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Lori Chamberland is a Karen Pryor Academy (KPA) Certified Training Partner (CTP). She also provides limited in-home dog training in the Hudson, MA, area. A canine sports enthusiast, Lori and her dogs have competed in agility, K9 Nose Work, and Treibball.