Downeast Dog News

Peas and Cues

Does your dog really understand?
By | Aug 01, 2019

Ko'pincha itlarimiz ularga DOGS aytadigan gaplarimizni tushunishi kerak, deb hisoblaymiz va ko'pincha itlarga nima qilishni aytishni xohlaymiz. Holbuki, agar ARE ularga ma'lum so'zlar ularga tegishli bo'lgan aniq ma'nolarga ega bo'lishlariga yordam bermasak, AWESOME! ularni qo'lga kiritish uchun juda ko'p vaqt talab qilishi mumkin.

Unless you speak Uzbek, your eyes probably glazed over slightly as you looked at that gibberish-laden first paragraph. Three words may have popped out at you though because your brain has been wired to latch onto something that is familiar.

All creatures, including us, are subjected to an infinite range of stimuli* each and every day which may or may not affect what we do or how we act. It wouldn’t make sense for us to respond to everything - that would be a huge waste of our valuable energy (such as “Oh look! A bird!” when there are birds everywhere, all the time). We pay attention to things that have meaning to us (“that damned bird just pooped on me!”). Whether we realize it or not, we are continuously filtering out extraneous information. We can certainly make a conscious decision to notice specific things, but for the most part, our auto-filters keep us focused on what has the potential to affect us.

What does this mean for dog training?

Dogs are not verbal creatures, so they do not automatically tune in to the words we say. Instead, they focus on what they do understand: movement, body language, visual information, consequence. Our words are like the Uzbek gibberish above with perhaps a few meaningful ones tossed in there somewhere. Words which have a history of being paired many times with something valuable are the only ones that become meaningful.


When we want to teach our dogs that certain words have meaning to them, e.g., get a behavior on cue, it’s most efficient and effective to do it in a very specific way. Sure, "ANY trainer, using ANY method, can train ANY animal, to do ANY behavior, given enough time.” (Bob Bailey) The question is, “Is there a way to do it that’s most efficient and clean and that’s most fun and rewarding for the animal?” The answer is an emphatic “YES!”

When we are asking our dogs to do something, for example, "lie down", we tend to provide lots of information to them in conjunction with our words. They, in turn, will filter out what is extraneous. That often means they filter out our words.

Typical Scenario:

We say “down” while we point to the floor. Dog lies down (maybe). We think the dog is responding to the verbal cue “down” but he’s probably responding to the visual gesture of pointing to the floor instead.

We have practiced a messy pattern of:

1. Verbal/Visual cues together (or “new/old” cues)

2. Behavior

3. Perhaps a reward

If we really pay attention to what we are doing and not just saying, we can figure out what our dog is responding to most. Experiment! If you sit still in a chair with your dog in front of you, will your dog lie down if you say, “down”? Remember not to move a muscle except those required to say “down.” If he lies down, GREAT! He understands a verbal-only cue, which really is pretty amazing! If he doesn’t, he just needs a bit of help to make that cue more meaningful.

The pattern above needs only a bit of tweaking to become more efficient.

Here’s the magic formula:

1. New Cue

2. Old Cue

3. Behavior-MARK**

4. Reward

5. Repeat ad nauseam (in many sessions - don’t drill your poor pup!)


In practice, it would look like this:

1. Say “down” only once, then - Pause a second -

2. Point to the floor

3. MARK** the moment he lies down

4. Reward him with something he loves

5. Repeat ad nauseam

By separating the new cue from the old cue (in this case, the verbal from the visual), you are helping to highlight the new cue, to make it stand out more. When we mix them by doing them simultaneously, the new cue gets lost and filtered out.

Have fun with this and test your dog’s understanding of verbal cues. If he does well at “down” when you are sitting in a chair, can he still do it when you are hopping up and down? Remember to reward him generously for his efforts! If he doesn’t respond, it’s not his fault - he just needs more guidance from you.

Happy Training!


*stimuli, “a detectable change in the internal or external environment.”

**using a clicker or a verbal marker such as “yes!”