DEAR OLD TRAINER: I noticed in your column that you use the command "track" to tell you dogs to run. I have never heard that command before, and I wondered why you decided to use it.
-- Karen, Santa Barbara
A: It was the result of a lack of planning, Karen, and a cautionary tale for any dog owner.
When I started training my first border collies, I didn't understand how smart they were. I didn't realize they would learn so fast that I would run out of commands.
I wasted a couple of words because I didn't think ahead. I used "go" to tell them to leave my room and go to their beds. "Run" meant it was time for us to go on our morning run.
One day in San Francisco we passed a house where a dog raced up to the gate and barked at them. The pack barked right back and everyone had a good time. After that, when we got close to the house, they were dying for me to let them run ahead and have a good bark.
I needed a word and didn't have one. Finally, "track" popped into my mind. I prefer strong words with explosive consonants. "Track" filled the bill. It worked, because as soon as I said it they took off. Now, no matter where we were, they know that command means "take off and run as hard as you can for a block and then stop."
Later, I got a call from a college having the usual problems with geese. As soon as the dogs saw the geese they knew what to do, but stood there waiting for me to say something. I had already used "run," "track" and "go" for other actions and, once again, needed a command.
I had watched an old Gene Hackman western, "Bite the Bullet," on TV the night before and remembered a scene where he described the charge up San Juan Hill and the cries of "assaulto." Good, strong word, so I used it to mean, "Run out there and roust those geese."
"Track" and "assaulto" both have explosive sounds and a logical connection to the action I am ordering them to do so they worked. But I had to come up with them on the spot because I didn't plan ahead.
The lesson to be learned is, put some thought into choosing your commands. Dogs don't care what word you use, so pick one sounds logical. An example of an illogical command is "off."
Obedience classes teach humans to use that word when they want their dog to stop playing with something. That makes no sense to me. I use "off" to mean get off that bed or chair or park bench. My command to leave something alone is "leave."
You are going to be adding new commands as long as your dog lives -- yes, you can teach an old dog new tricks -- so pick a word that most precisely describes what you want done.
Jack Haskins writes as The Old Trainer. A trainer for more than 30 years, he has rescued, trained, and placed more than 2,000 dogs. Send questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org