Dog Training by Osmosis

Lazing on couch

Dog Training by Osmosis

This morning, as I was making my breakfast smoothie, Bodhi and Sierra were hyper-attentive as usual. Why, you might wonder, were they so focused? Are they invested in making sure I get enough fruits and veggies? No. They’re making sure they get their fruits and veggies, or at least the slices of banana and cucumber that they know I’ll share with them. Since those two items go into the smoothie at different times, the dogs are pretty much sitting there for the duration. At some point, though, I’ll turn to them and say, “That’s it for dogs!” They then give sad little doggie sighs and pad away to lie down and wait for the next exciting event of the day.

The phrase, “That’s it for dogs!” isn’t something I ever taught my dogs. But they’re both smart, and have learned through hearing the phrase many times that it’s always followed by a big fat nothing. It’s not a phrase that had to be formally trained. One definition of osmosis is “the subtle or gradual absorption or mingling.” And so I think of this type of non-formal, lifestyle training as Training by Osmosis.

Here’s another example: In the early mornings, my husband and I take the dogs out for exercise. We do this separately, since my husband takes one dog to a local park where they can run together and I, the non-runner, take the other dog to a different park where we can hike. We switch off dogs, and it works out nicely for everyone. We live in a rural area on a small hillside away from the road, and sometimes we let the dogs run to the cars before having their leashes put on. Both dogs will typically run to the closer car. But if it’s my day with Sierra and I say, “Sierra, the other one,” she’ll immediately turn and race toward the other car. Did I ever teach her what other means? No. It’s something she picked up, probably from a combination of watching my body language and where I was looking, and repeatedly seeing me walk toward the other car after uttering that phrase.

Formal training in obedience commands is a great thing to teach. But dogs are learning all the time, for better or worse. (You put away the dog cookies on that low shelf with the broken door? Lesson learned in record time!) Right now, as I stand at the computer typing, Sierra is sitting and staring at me. It’s almost time for the dogs to be fed. I’ve just told her, “It’s early,” and so she’s walked out of the room. This is another phrase she and Bodhi have learned through osmosis—as the definition goes, subtle, gradual absorption. It’s fascinating to think about how much more dogs understand than what we give them credit for. They’re masters of observation and excellent learners, particularly when there’s something in it for them. What have your dogs learned by osmosis?

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13 Responses to Dog Training by Osmosis

  1. Very interesting to read that your dogs know there is no food left for them when you say ”That’s it for dogs”. My dog has the same reaction whenever I just say ”That’s it”

    • wildewmn says:

      Well, really they’d have the same reaction if I said, “Spatula!” as long as it was followed by them not getting anything. “That’s it for dogs” just happens to be what comes out of my mouth and they’ve associated it.

  2. BC Mom says:

    I say “All done” when we are done playing and need to head in the house – they drop whatever toy they have & immediately head for the garage; I hold up empty hands, palms toward them when treats are done & they walk away even if I still have food as they know they won’t get anymore. They have become cues but really just started out with me talking to them. There really are a lot of things I say that they have picked up on …. saying lets go upstairs or downstairs and they run ahead of me up or down. (I think these are examples of what you are referring to.)

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi BC Mom, yes, those are definitely the types of things I’m talking about! Interestingly, I also do the empty hands gesture when treats are done, and my dogs respond the same as yours. Funny when you think of all the different things in our days that they’ve picked up on without us formally training them.

  3. Frances says:

    Our phrases are “Stay and be good!” (drooping ears and tails as it means I am going out without them), “Home again, home again” (time to turn around on a walk), “All gone!” (that’s it for treats), and a load more that I have forgotten!

  4. Zsuzsa Bernaczki says:

    Excellent article. Love to read your work Nicole.

  5. Hazel says:

    Rascal likes to wake me up about an hour early for breakfast. I tell him “it’s too early, lay back down” he will lay down and take a nap till time. As leaving I say “be good boys” and they know they are staying home instead of going with me.

  6. juliabarrett says:

    Great article. I never cease to be amazed at the number of human words my German shepherd understands. I suppose both words and gestures.

  7. Storulven says:

    Reblogged this on AkashaTalking and commented:
    Another beautiful post by Wilde About Dogs!

  8. Chas Hamilton says:

    Many stock dogs are trained to quit working (Sheep, cows, chickens) when told: “That will do.” Correct this is not an “osmosis.” learned phrase; but, it stops the dog from continuing many other wrong actions. Almost like a ‘recall.’
    Great observation!

  9. sassyseattle says:

    Funny. I bet lots of dogs have learned many things via osmosis. My girl stops staring and licking her lips, and walks away when I say “all gone”. Same way she comes running if I say “treat” . I guess I never really thought about HOW she learned it, I just attributed it to my belief in her superior intelligence! 😁

  10. wildcallblog says:

    Really interesting topic; my dog now knows several different animal names such as ‘rabbit’ and ‘squirrel’ without us ever teaching her. She also picked up ‘find your toy’ accidentally and we use it all the time now. 🙂

  11. I never really thought about all the phrases my dogs understand without me teaching them, although I always knew they could understand more than I gave them credit for. I’m going to pay more attention now to the things I tell them on a regular basis – its definitely more than just “sit” and “roll over” haha! Thanks!

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