More than words

by | Feb 29, 2020 | Learning about dogs | 0 comments

3 min read

We expect our dogs to understand the meaning of words and signals, but if you have ever worked with computers you will know that what you say doesn’t always turn into an actionable response.

(The customer seeking advice from the support line: “can you send me a replacement keyboard please, mine is missing the ANY key?” …..) 


There is an inherited arrogance in training that the dog needs to put all the effort into understanding us, rather than us making the effort to be clear in our communication to them. Our skills are developed as children with our parents, teachers and peers, but these skills are not the same as communicating with another species or a computer.

Very often simple cues such as “heel” or “bed” may be obvious to us but if the dogs could answer it would be a question of “do what?” We expect them to adduct to find the possible solution to earn reward. Both “heel” and “bed” imply a destination and have no information as to the action that will be successful.

Side by side

Walking down the road and the dog is at the far end of the leash. You give the cue “heel” (I hope not with a slap to the leg) with the intention for the dog to move to a pre-decided destination relative to you, continue to maintain that position under all conditions.

Should the dog:

a) turn around and come back to you repositioning themselves at the desired location
b) stop and wait until you catch up, or
c) walk backwards to the position?

More importantly do they have the skills to do any of those behaviours and the skills to choose which one will be successful under the immediate conditions? (The immediate conditions may vary as to which squirrel has just launched at a tree, which dead frog’s scent has come into urgent range or an abandoned chunk of freshly fried bacon just coming into reach)

When our cue is a destination it gives very poor, or no, information to the dog as to how to respond.

Yes, I would be irritated, stand still, look at you over my shoulder and sigh.

“There she goes again….. huh?”

Bed. NOW

I can teach a youngster to go to their bed. We stand close to the bed and I lure the dog onto the bed and within 3 or 4 repetitions give the gesture, she responds and I then feed at the destination. It changes from a lured walk-through to an offered response. I increase the distance by taking one step at a time backwards away from the bed, repeat the gesture and she travels to the bed, I join her and reward.

But what if we turn around 180° and stand with our back to the bed? Have I yet taught her to LOOK for the bed, and go around me to get to the bed? No, not under these conditions.

She has learned to respond to the cue “bed” with the hand gesture provided she is facing the bed and can see it, and no further away than a few steps.

Cues require rules of grammar

Words, signals should be actions, then destinations, beginning of actions or ending of actions. We should look at the behaviours as a sequence of actions that result in a destination.

For the dog at the end of the leash:

Stop   >>  turn around  >> move to this spot   >> turn around >> stand still  >> REWARD.

This usually teaches the recognisable behaviour known as the Leash Yo-yo.

To be able to maintain the relative (heel) position we have to consider the movement the dog needs to learn to synchronise with us whilst at the same time inhibiting responses arriving from the environment. This is a whole package of skills that take considerable time and effort to learn.

Where is bed?

Anytime we are asking the dog to go to a destination we should be teaching them to look for the destination before the cue to travel to the destination. We can use a whole range of games that they will enjoy tremendously that teach the skills of finding an object, a reward, or a location. This “look for, look at” behaviour then becomes the opening cue to “go to xyz” with additional cues to pick up “xyz”, lie down on “xyz”, “eat xyz”.

Then ask yourself is “look for” the same as “look at”? One implies a stillness whilst visually scanning and the other implies a mobile searching pattern whilst seeking. Not the same actions. Different cues, different signals.

First response

Your opening cue should be the action the dog will need to do first to be able to be successful. Think of your cues as actions, not targets.

  1. When hearing a cue what is the dog going to do?
  2. Have you taught the dog how to “do” that?
  3. Are you sure the cue is associated with that action?

For every cue or signal you give the dog write down a clear description of what the action is, not just “do it”.


Stop what you are doing  >> look for me >> run to my hand

If you desire a prompt response then the most critical learning will be “stop what you are doing”, and be clear what that action looks like, how you will teach it and how you will reward it. The run to my hand is easy part if the first part is successful.



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