Silence is a cue. It means, “You are right; keep on with what you are doing.”
If you sit your dog, leave, and then face your dog, then your silence means he should continue to sit and wait; it is the cue to keep going.
If you send your dog to fetch and then wait quietly, then your silence cues him to continue – that he is correct in his current path.
If your dog is cued to sit, down, stand, and then to recall? If you are silent between cues it means….
You’ve got it. Keep going. You’re right. You’re a star!
So how do you teach it?
The same way you teach any cue; with reinforcement for correct behaviors under successively more challenging conditions!
If silence follows a single cue that you have given, like asking your dog to sit, and you want to reinforce both the sit and then the silence, then you will reinforce as such: sit, cookie, silence, cookie, silence, cookie….
You are teaching your dog that silence means to continue on.
And in a chain?
That similar. Now you will give two cues before you reinforce. For example, sit, silence, cookie. In that case, one cookie reinforced both cues; the sit and the silence.
And in a more complex chain; for example, the retrieve over the high jump?
You cue the fetch. And then you silently wait until the dog finishes. Your silence is the cue to the dog that he is doing it correctly.
Some people use praise this way. For example, sit, praise, cookie. Or fetch, praise, cookie.
That’s fine if your dog needs a little extra help getting through in the beginning, but long-term it’s a killer. It’s silence that your dog must value as “common” marker of correct behavior.
If silence comes to mean “wrong” beyond the earliest shaping/training phase, you may well find yourself with a dog offering a whole lot of behaviors anytime there is a pause between cues. That would be bad, and really, that’s pretty easily avoided. Just make sure that you reinforce the cue of silence the same as any other cue and you’ll be on your way.
If your dog makes an error with the silence cue, then you treat it like any other cue that is not executed property; what that might be would depend on the dog and how you train. I’ll have a webinar on the topic of handling failure in January – there’s way more to that topic than I can handle here.
Train silence by reinforcing it, and soon your dog will find the Sound of Silence – Golden!