When working with clients, I get asked a lot “What word should I use to tell my dog to X?”

In my previous life, I was a developer, coding using HTML. With that it was a language I had to learn, commands and queries were predetermined and I had to use them in certain orders to get what I needed.

But dogs are not computers or pieces of software (dear god, my life would be easier if they were!). They’re not programmed with a shit-load of commands that we need to figure out, and use to get the results we need. You need to teach your dog cue words. And by teach, I don’t mean the old “Sit Fido. Sit. Sit. SIT SIT.”. Fido has great hearing. He heard you. He’s either decided that there are better things to do rather than sitting (which means you need to up your training game), or he just doesn’t understand what you want.

Helping your dog to understand what you want

Now don’t get me wrong, Fido is never going to understand what the word ‘sit’ means. He’s not learning English here, he will just come to associate that word with what it is that you want from him. And as long as you’ve trained well, and he knows there’s a chance of a yummy reward (he doesn’t need a treat every time once he’s learned a behaviour), he should be reliably responding to this sound you make.

Make training fun

If your pup has a good time training, he’s more likely to respond well to your cues. Keep sessions short and sweet with yummy treats, and have a play afterwards.

Be consistent with your use of cue words

If you want your cue to be “Sit”, keep with that. Don’t use “Sit”, “Sit Down”, “Sit, sit SIT” or “Sit your arse down”. As mentioned, he doesn’t understand the words; he just associates the sound. And none of those sound like “Sit”

Be consistent with your tone

We all know that a dog responds with a happy waggy tail when we use our baby voice with “Who’s a good boy then? Are you a good boy?”, and that can be substituted with “Who’s a stinky little sod who rolled in the fox poo then? You are!”, and we’ll get the same response. As long as we use the same tone of voice. It’s the same with cue words. Using the same tone every time can help him understand what we’re after. Which is why in Puppy and Me Puppy Training we teach “Drop”’ to be a loud, stern cue word, almost shouted – because when we’re walking our dog and they pick up a chicken bone, we’re not asking for a “Drop” in a calm sing-song voice…

Don’t use different cue words that sound the same

Kimber, my beagle, has “Flat” as his cue word to lie down, as we were already using “Down” for asking for four feet on the floor, and “Lie Down” was too similar. Help him out by keeping words distinct and separate.

Have fun with it – if you know another language, teach cues in both languages – you can have multiple cue words for the same behaviour, as long as they’re both taught correctly. Just remember about having them all sounding different.

Keep in mind that your dog does not understand the words themselves, and if he’s not responding, check what you’re doing and saying, and how you’re doing and saying it. You can always strengthen his understanding by revisiting training again.

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