Verbal cues have a different meaning to dogs than to humans. Humans tend to think dogs are actually understanding the language, but dogs are simply listening for an indication of what they can do to make things work, to get things they want. “When I see my human pick up a leash, I know fun is waiting!” Dogs are always using their senses to determine how to choose their next moves. “When I hear Dad’s car drive up, I know I get to play with him in a minute!” The environment gives dogs clues, but owners can teach specific verbal cues and how dogs can respond to make good things happen.
Make Cues Clear
Make cues clear for your dog – especially in the learning phase! Dogs don’t “do” language. Spoken words don’t make sense to them. They have to work to understand how your words are associated with the behaviors you want, the ones you’ll give a treat for. Make it easy for your dog to learn what you want a word to mean by showing her exactly what you want, or by directly pairing the cue with the behavior when you know it’s likely to happen.
Multiple Ways to Introduce Cues
One way to teach your dog to do a behavior on cue is to introduce the cue right away. This technique often works well for basic position behaviors like “sit” and “down”. You can also get the behavior going first, before adding a cue, and I recommend learning to do that. But if you are pretty sure you can get the dog to sit or lie down quickly after giving the verbal cue, you can introduce the cue from the beginning. It’s simple and easy for the human end of the leash to understand and teach.
Isolate the Verbal Cue
Isolate your verbal cue from everything else – your movements, visible treats, and other stimuli. Use something besides the word as a prompt after you say the word – the smallest movement you can make, luring with a treat, whatever will get the dog to do the behavior you’re looking for. When communicating with other humans, you can use a whole string of words to describe what you want to say. Don’t do that to your dog! You’ll only muddy up the cue; the dog will have to figure out exactly which word – only a sound to him – has any meaning. Be clear, say only the specific cue, say it only one time, and have a plan as to what you’ll do to help him respond properly if necessary.
Define the Behavior
Of course, you should have already defined the behavior as part of your vision. What behavior do you want? Be specific – define it carefully and know what it looks like when your dog is starting to do it! If you don’t, you won’t respond appropriately when he starts the process. Your dog could to several incorrect things plus the right thing a couple of times before you realize what’s happening, and that will slow your training down. Know what to look for. Use your powers of prediction, based on your observations. If you say, “Sit” and you see a muscle contraction in your dog’s hips or knees, pause and see if he moves into a sit. If you don’t see any movement, if he’s just standing there looking at you, prompt with a lure. It’s that simple, but you must be fully engaged in the process.
Speak Your Chosen Cue One Time Only
Resist the urge to keep repeating your verbal cue, louder and louder as though your dog didn’t hear it. He heard it. His hearing is fine. Don’t use big dramatic movements as you say the cue. In fact, be as still as a statue so you don’t complicate things with your movements. Dogs are much more tuned in to movements than they are to words. Words don’t make sense to them but responding to the movements of other animals is a big part of their lives.
You’re the Teacher
If you want your dog to respond to a verbal cue, you must teach him to follow the process. Follow the process yourself, carefully giving just one cue and using your observation skills to see the first steps of the behavior your dog is giving you. As always, reinforcement builds the behavior. Train carefully and see the speed and efficiency with which you can create a precision behavior that occurs every time you say the cue.