Downeast Dog News

Mind your Ps and Cues

Teach your Dog Some English!
By | Mar 01, 2021

It usually ends up being a circular conversation.

A client will ask, for example, “what is the command to get my puppy to perch?” We reply that there isn’t a verbal cue* quite yet. “But how will she know what to do if I don’t tell her?”

If we were to ask the dog, and she could speak English, she’d respond, “how will I know what to do if I don’t understand the language you are using?”

Where does that leave us? Confused, to say the least.

This little round-about, twisty turny conversation challenges our thinking. We want a pup to do something, and lacking other options, we use our language to try to convey it. It’s very natural for us as verbal creatures to rely on getting our dogs to do things by throwing words at them, despite the fact that dogs are not born with the ability to comprehend any language except dog.

How DO we teach a dog to respond to specific cues?

Our dogs can certainly learn to respond to an impressive array of verbal cues. If we want to be efficient about it and fair to them, we will be intentional and strategic when it comes to training.

First, we need to wrap our heads around the concept that a “cue” is a predictor of, a label for, a specific behavior. When I was in high school and learning the elementals of rudimentary Spanish, I would write the Spanish word for objects in our house on individual sticky notes, and I’d stick them to the appropriate item. This way, every time I saw a sticky note, I was able to associate the Spanish name to the correct item. It took many repetitions to memorize them – now those memories are long gone!

Okay, now that we have a general understanding of a cue, let’s get the behavior! But how? Simply put, any way that we can get our dog to want to do the behavior is a good way to get it. Technically, we have 3 choices:

• Luring – this is when we entice a pup to move in a certain way, often using food.

• Capturing – this is when we mark a pup, using a clicker, for naturally offering a desired behavior.

• Shaping – this is when we reward approximations of a goal behavior, gradually building towards the completed behavior.

This sounds complicated, doesn’t it? It’s not.

If you read last month’s article, you know that there has to be a consequence in order for a dog to want to repeat a behavior. Treats are a good option!

Example: Down

I’ll use a simple “down” as the example and food will be the consequence. I’m going to lure the pup with food to go into a down position. There are some tricks to getting even the most resistant of pups to lie down, but I won’t get into those details here. I may choose to reward a bow or even bent elbows, as those are precursors to a down, but I will resist the urge to say, “down.” Eventually, the pup will get the idea that the food is only available when she’s lying down, and she’ll progress to lying down much more readily when I lure her.

Now I am ready to add the verbal cue because I will be able to predict that she’ll lie down when I lure her.

There is a specific order I need to follow when I want to get a behavior on cue:

1. New Cue followed by

2. Old Cue followed by

3. Behavior (click!) followed by

4. Reward

This means I’ll 1) say “down” and then (but not simultaneously) 2) lure her into a down, at which point she 3) lies down and 4) gets the treat. This pattern needs many repetitions before she will understand there’s a connection between that strange noise I make (“down”) and the behavior. It’s very similar to me needing to study those Spanish words over and over to understand them. They start out as noises and then gradually gain meaning through repetition and association.

When you think she’s had an “aha!” moment, test her out! Hesitate longer between saying “down” and luring her. If she responds before you lure, yay!! If not, continue practicing steps 1-4 a few more times and then try again. Do not blame her for not responding - she just needs more practice with 1-4.

Happy Training!


*”command” vs. “cue”

In the olden days, we used the term “command” in dog training. We liked to be bossy and demanding back then. Now, though, we understand that our dogs are companions, not minions, and we prefer the word “cue.” We think of cues as a means of communication, mutually understood.