Informational cues differ from what we think of as a standard cue such as “sit” or “lay down” in that your dog does not have to perform any behavior when the cue is given. Instead, informational cues serve to let your dog know that something is going to happen to him or around him and there is no need to be scared or worried. We teach informational cues by choosing a word to let your dog know what is going to happen and then pair the event with something he enjoys, like a treat. By pairing the cue and the event with a treat, we can then shape his view of the coming event into a positive outlook. Here are three simple informational cues that can help your dog view potentially scary events in a positive light.
Lift: This one works for small dogs who gets picked up and carried a lot. The world can easily look very scary from a height that is five times your own. Let your dog know that you are intending to lift him by first choosing a verbal cue such as “lift” or “up-up” and then reaching toward him as if you were going to pick him up, then give them a treat. Practice this until you are eventually lifting him off the ground in increments until you are fully standing up with your dog in hand.
Touching of the Body: Some dogs are easily startled when touched by hand, especially if they don’t see the contact coming. Add a verbal cue such as “Got You!” or “Touching” to let him know that he should expect to feel your hand somewhere on his body. Give the verbal cue and reach toward him, then deliver a treat. Work toward being able to touch his fur with your fingers after he hears the cue. Practice touching various parts of his body for a treat. Eventually he will expect a human touch somewhere and will be ready for the contact.
What’s That?: This is a fun game to play with your dog that will help him deal with unexpected occurrences in the world later. Practice showing your dog various items he may not have seen before. Say the verbal cue “What’s That?” and reveal the item from behind your back. When he looks at the item click and treat him for being brave enough to make eye contact. Practice the “What’s That?” game with both visual and audible items. By practicing this over time, you can use the cue to let him know when something he may not expect is going to happen such as a bike rider whipping by him or prior to a noise like a vacuum or an aerosol can.
These cues are extremely helpful to avoid associating fear with unknown or possibly scary situations that your dog may not have experienced or may be uncomfortable with. Letting him know what to expect, and then pairing those outcomes with something he enjoys will only help when a real life situation presents itself. Examine the informational cues you may have already taught your dog and let us know some other great examples!