When I start teaching a new skill in class, a question I often hear from clients is “What word do I say?” My answer is pretty much always “Whatever word you want!” Dogs do not come preloaded with a dictionary, so we can teach them to associate whatever word we choose with any particular behavior. Of course, there are some general guidelines that might be helpful when building your dog’s vocabulary.
· Don’t use the same word for more than one behavior. For example, if you want to say “down” when your dog is jumping up on someone, use a different word such as “lay” when you want your dog to go into a belly on the ground position.
· Your word should come out of your mouth easily. If “gentle” doesn’t roll off your tongue, use “easy” or “nicely” to ask your dog to take treats politely from fingers.
· Have a clear picture of what exactly your dog should be doing when you say the word. For example, for my dogs, “leave it” means move your head away from that interesting thing, and “drop it” means open your jaws. These are two separate muscle movements, so they have different verbal cues. If you ask your dog to “leave it” when he already has it in his mouth, it may be confusing.
· Have everyone in your family use the same words. While dogs can learn multiple words for the same behavior, it’s better to stick to one word during the early stages of learning a new behavior.
The other thing to keep in mind is that a verbal cue is not always the best way to get your dog to do what you want. Dogs tend to learn visual cues more quickly (and often more reliably) than verbal cues. So if your dog is struggling to respond to you saying “Sit! Sit! Sit!” help him out by following the word cue with a hand signal. We also often give our dog visual signals without realizing it. When we say “sit”, we might lean forward slightly, or move our hands up slightly, and while we think the dog is responding to the word, it’s actually the slight body movement. If you want to give your dog’s verbal cues a test, check out this video: https://youtu.be/pLHEf4wuDGI
Another wonderful way to get good behavior from your dog is to not use any word cue at all. Letting the environment or situation be the cue is a great way to train! For example, standing near the door to go outside and just waiting for your dog to offer a sit (without saying the word or giving the hand signal) will teach your dog to offer a sit to go outside. Or say your dog wants to pull to greet another dog when on a walk. You can certainly use a “leave it” cue, or a “watch me” cue, but wouldn’t it be nice if your dog saw the other dog and looked back to you without even being asked? When your dog first sees another dog, offer your dog a treat by your side. Over time, when your dog sees another dog, he will immediately come to your side, expecting a treat, instead of pulling forward. The other dog becomes the cue to go to your side, and you don’t have to say a word!