The Magic Words in Dog Training

Boy with a dog in the park

Whenever I meet with a new training client for the first time, we almost always spend the first portion of the lesson talking about their dog and the behavioural challenges that they would like to address with training.

One of the most common questions that gets asked during the initial consult is: “What do I say to get my dog to _____________?” I think that most dog trainers hear this question a lot too. Just because I am a professional dog trainer, that doesn’t mean that I have access to secret words that will automatically make your dog behave the way that you would like him to. It doesn’t work that way. There are no magic words in dog training. Saying a specific word to your dog (before going through training with him) will have no more of an effect on your dog than a pinch of pixie dust.

It’s the behaviours that you reinforce, not the words that you say.

Humans are a very verbal species, and our first instinct is to talk to our dogs when we want to communicate something with them. Unfortunately, our dogs are not born knowing how to speak English and we don’t automatically know how to speak Dog. In the beginning, most of what we say to them is just gibberish – it doesn’t mean anything to them because they have not yet formed an association between the word that we are using and a specific behaviour.

Dogs are smart creatures and often they are able to form an association between a word or phrase and a behaviour on their own. Every evening around 6 pm, I look at my dogs and ask, “Are you hungry?” They perk up immediately and run into the kitchen where I have fed them their dinner every day since the day that they came home. That specific phrase reliably predicts what I am going to do next and they get reinforced for running into the kitchen and waiting patiently for their meal twice a day, every day. In this case, the phrase “Are you hungry?” is the cue that predicts mealtime, but I could have very easily said “Apples and oranges” for the same response from my dogs as long as I always followed those words by going into the kitchen and dishing out their meals. It’s not really the words that matter – it’s the behaviour that’s associated with the words and how often that behaviour is reinforced by us.

If you want to streamline the training process and make things easier for you and your dog, the best thing to do is to follow a training plan for teaching him specific behaviours. If you are teaching your dog a new behaviour, it’s really important that you make sure that you don’t add any cues until you are 100% sure that your dog understands what you want him to do. If you start adding the cue too early, you can accidentally pair the wrong behaviour with the cue. For example, if you’re trying to teach your dog to Stay and you try to add the cue before your dog is reliably holding his position, you can accidentally teach him that the word “stay” means “get up and follow me.”

When you are sure that your dog understands what you want him to do, you are ready to add the cue. When you are naming any behaviour for your dog, you are going to say your cue WHILE your dog is performing the behaviour.

Dog begins behaviour → Say your cue → Dog finishes behaviour → Click and reinforce

Your cue can be any word that you’d like it to be. Just make sure that it’s a word that will come naturally to you. Don’t say “here” when you’re working on your dog’s recall if “come” is more likely to come out of your mouth when you’re calling your dog. Again, the specific word that you choose doesn’t matter to your dog, only the consistency with which you pair that word with the behaviour you are trying to reinforce. Be consistent with the words that you choose to use with your dog and he will be able to figure out what you mean a lot faster!

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