How to ask your dog questions…overshadowing part two.

My last blog introduced the concept of overshadowing by offering a simple example to illustrate the point. For an explanation of the concept, you can read that blog here. But that basic understanding doesn’t go far enough in my opinion. Many unusual variations exist and can interfere with training.

To recap, animals are more likely to attach meaning to information that is more important and noticeable – the more “salient.” Abstract variations can be hard to spot. It’s a bit like the video of a gorilla dancing through a crowded room. Few people notice the gorilla until it’s pointed out. Once you see it, that gorilla is obvious.

Spatial properties are one such example. Dogs don’t just see and hear things. They also notice that cues are in specific locations. Where can be a very beneficial piece of information.

Hungry feral dogs hear and see small prey. Does it really matter if the squirrel is running through leaves? Over twigs? Makes chattering noises? Is digging? It’s more important that the dog pay attention to where the sound is coming. Knowing where allows them to find dinner.

Similarly, a dog is likely less concerned whether a scary sound is a bang, boom or grunt. Where allows the dog to run in the opposite direction – to safety. Where can be a matter of life or death.

Researchers have designed elegant experiments to test spatial factors. Dogs were taught to lift their right paw when they heard a metronome that was placed in front of them. They learned to lift their left paw when a buzzer sounded behind them (see top graphic).

Then the researchers swapped the sounds. They wondered if the dog would lift the paw based on the type of sound, or the place from which it came from.

Overshadowing experiment

The dogs had not picked up on the type of sound.  They honed in on the location of the cue, not the sound quality. The full extent of the experiment was a bit more complex. The conclusion the researchers came to was this: Responses differentiated by location are most likely to come under control of the spatial features. (Dobrzecka, Szwejkowska, Konorski 1966)

Many dog training skills involve spatial components. Discrimination tasks where the dog chooses between things to the left, right or middle potentially fall into this category. If we’re not careful, the dog figures out that we move our hand just a little bit to the left, middle or right, giving the right answer by where our hand happens to be. It might seem that the dog has learned a complex task. In reality, they’re watching for a hint we might not even realize we are giving.

Sports dogs that learn to turn left or right are doing a skill with spatial features. If you’re not hyper vigilant in how you train, the dog might be paying attention to where you’re standing, not what you’re saying or doing.

Left and right paw is a skill many pet owners teach. Most dogs don’t actually connect the words to the skill. They learn, “Give the paw that is closest to the extended hand.” Or as you’ll see in the video blow, a foot can cue the behaviour.  The foot swaps for the hand just like the metronome and buzzer swapped. Where matters more than what.

Left and right paw is still a cute trick. Owners can effectively wipe their dog’s paws without polishing this skill. If you don’t mind issues with the cue, it does not matter.

It does start to matter if a family does not like it when their dog swats and scratches their arms – arms that are reaching out to scratch the dog’s chest. It matters if you’re the type of person who becomes frustrated or annoyed when the dog is not doing what you think they ought to.  If you well up with irritation, it matters.  It most certainly matters if the consequence for pawing at the wrong time results in punishment or discipline. This is a predictable effect. It is a dog doing exactly what they have been taught to do. It is not a stubborn dog.  It isn’t the dog’s fault or error.

There are three choices on the table. Don’t teach behaviours that might become obnoxious if you have no intention of polishing them. The second option is to accept what you have taught, happily. The third option is to finish the behaviour. That includes assessing and incorporating the correct cue.

How can we know if location is overshadowing other cues? Ask the dog. Manipulate little details and see how the dog responds. In the following video, I work through variations of Karma’s paw shake behaviour to see how she’s interpreting the lessons. It also shows how important where is to Karma, more than any other feature of the cue.  If you want to see spatial elements overshadowing, click right here to watch footage of it!

We cannot ask our dogs to repeat information. We can listen with our eyes and test assumptions. Based on the dog’s response, we can see if they heard us clearly. Learning about factors such as overshadowing, well that allows us to become better at knowing what to ask.  More importantly, it eliminates stress that doesn’t need to be present in our training because the dog is not being defiant, stubborn or anything malicious at all.  They’re just being normal.

About the Author

Yvette Van Veen PCT-A is dog behavior consultant and owner of Awesome Dogs, in Dorchester, Ontario, Canada.  She is also a long-time columnist and multiple Dog Writers Association of America award nominee, and currently writes a regular column for The Toronto Star.  She has worked with rescue dogs for more than 14 years, focusing mainly on rural, roaming and feral rescue dogs from communities throughout Ontario and Quebec, Canada.  She is also the creator of Awesome Dogs Shareables, an educational meme site providing resources and training tips in small, shareable formats.