What Words Conceal

by | Jun 14, 2024 | Key Reading

Did this faux advertising copy give you a knot in your stomach or make you bristle? Can you put your finger on what it is exactly? Is it the idea of obedience and compliance, the pejorative language, the myth of who a dog should be, the oversimplification of the learning process, or is there something else?

We’re bombarded with language about dogs across all kinds of media – film and TV, books, newspaper articles, advertisements – that paint a picture of dogs and our relationships with them. These words and phrases don’t merely reflect (a certain view of) reality though: they also have the power to shape it, not only in the popular imagination but also in terms of the social pressures and cultural norms that come from that.

“It’s not a command; it’s a cue”

The frequent echo of this phrase across social media is evidence that we recognise that words have power. Here, they are an attempt to distinguish ways of relating to dogs from the “dog-must-do” attitude espoused by those who believe in obedience above all else; they also serve as a marker of a particular identity and ethos – of belonging to a community of like-minded people who use particular techniques and avoid certain tools in their training of dogs.

In this phrase is a recognition that words can shape our beliefs, reflect outwards our values, and align us with and against certain groups or methods. It demonstrates that how we speak about dogs is intricately connected to how we relate to them, but also that we have the power to influence others through our language choices.

Many of us resist these views of dogs as strong-willed, manipulative animals who need to be trained into compliance; to be shown who’s boss; against whom we’re constantly pitted in a struggle for control. And yet while “cue” over “command” certainly marks a progression in thinking about dogs, there are some other terms that you may use about dogs that may benefit from an update. I discuss some of these below.


Focussed on behaviour towards other humans (too seldom we think of helping our dogs learn manners in their interactions with other dogs) teaching our dogs, the notion of “manners” is firmly rooted in human social norms (and, I might add, varies between cultures). By talking about our dogs’ learning in terms of manners, we are regarding that learning in terms of acceptable behaviour. While there is certainly no benefit to either the dog or their humans to excavate the sofa or to leave mucky paw prints all over your mother-in-law’s white trousers, the idea that we teach (especially young) dogs manners towards humans seems to suggest that we prioritise the idea of their conformity to what a “good dog” should be, rather than channelling their learning in ways that benefit them and those around them. Certainly, learning life skills may mean that visitors’ capri pants remain mud-free and that two-seater will support those capris and their contents for years to come, but in those precious early months in particular, we might prefer to speak in ways that reflect our view that our our dogs’ learning is something precious to shape rather than to suppress.

Behaviours & Tricks

Both of these terms suggest things our dogs perform on cue (with performance often being the operative word; there’s a strong implication here that these are what the dog does when a human is watching). Behaviours and tricks strike me as unidirectional: things the dog does for us, rather than for themselves.

Behaviours misdirects the focus away from who your dog is and instead onto what they do, treating their learning as isolated from what they find naturally rewarding, from how they choose to move through the world, and from your relationship. The term, instead, suggests conformity to externally imposed standards of how your dog should be.

There is, too, an implication of “frivolity” and unseriousness in the term “tricks”: a reductive view of learning that treats its goal as one of human entertainment rather than of canine skill and pleasure.

Thinking about actions and movements, however, roots the learning firmly with the dog: learning that they can carry with them, that is rooted in who they are, and that brings them pleasure to perform even when shielded from the human gaze.


As a recovering (and occasionally relapsing) fast feeder who hurried to deliver reinforcers as quickly as possible to get the next behaviour, I feel this one particularly acutely. When I began to see my delivery of the reward as such an important part of the dog’s pleasure in the learning process, everything began to change, for them and for me. Not only did we have learning sessions that were just about reward delivery, but facilitating greater pleasure for them in the learning process increased their desire for learning as well as mine. Reinforcers are all about the “behaviour”; rewards, on the other hand, are all about the dog.


These are terms that strike me as meaningless. If I sit on a thumb tack, I’ll be motivated to stand up, but it doesn’t mean that either the process or the outcome (standing up, sore bum or not) was enjoyable for me. Drive is similarly vague, and worse still it is often pursued as a goal without regard fo the emotional state of the dog. I often see dogs showing frustration in a particular scenario (frequently with a toy) being described as “high drive.” A dog doesn’t have to be highly aroused to learn; in fact, high arousal can often be inimical to good learning. How about we talk about their desire to learn instead?


I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling like this is such a reductive term used to dismiss a dog’s experiences of the world around them by pathologizing their responses. The phrase “reactive” dog is a broad-brush substitute for looking at the learning of the dog and relating it to each scenario in which the dog feels the need to make their feelings known. I have no single suggested alternative for this (sensitive to the environment? Alert to novel events; it may differ from case to case); instead, let’s talk about this one with more nuance and understanding for the dog’s perspective.


What science? Whose science (how many of the most frequently cited scientists lived with dogs and lived with them in a way you’d endorse? How up-to-date is this science? How informed by interdisciplinary thinking from the Humanities to ask questions about ethics, empathy, interspecies relations and power? How immersed have you been in studying science and its principles? Are you acquainted with the scientific method? Pseudo-science is not science; watered-down scientific principles taken out of their original context are not science. And there is nothing – not even “science” – that should remain unquestioned and untested.

Positive Training

This term has become so overused that it’s essentiall meaningless. But even if it were not, by whose standards? In the name of “positive training,” I’ve seen dogs repeatedly exposed (albeit at a distance) to a stimulus that they fear while the human shoves food in their face; I’ve seen dogs “learning tricks” that incorporate poor, and occasionally dangerous movements (jumping, twisting, standing on their hind legs without the appropriate structure or foundational learning); I’ve seen “games” that confuse the dog about what an open hand containing food means; I’ve seen dogs left to try to “work out” what their human wants so that they can earn a piece of food. If positive merely means “trains with food instead of pain,” then that’s a very low bar.

For the above two terms, I have no suggested replacement. I don’t think there ís should be one as they do little more than act as a marker of group-belonging that serves to stifle creativity and avoid responsibility for reflection.  They don’t force us to ask the difficult questions like:

  • Is this learning to the benefit of this dog?
  • Does this honour who they are?
  • Is this right for them, now, in this way?
  • How do I help them thrive as a learner?
  • How do I get both parties become skillful companions for each other.

It’s tempting to adopt the buzzwords, the marketing clichés, the soundbites that are so popular in the dog business. But we only need to reflect on why we got involved in this business in the first place to remember that it stemmed from a love of dogs, a respect for their learning, and a desire to see them and their humans thrive in partnership.

Time for a terminology update; let us know in the comments below what your contributions to (or excisions from) the Glossary of Dog would be.


Key Reading

Not Today and Not for My Sheepdogs

Standard protocols of extinction, impulse control, counterconditioning are quickly grabbed off the shelf as satisfactory solutions. These solutions are unlikely to help your collie, your sheepdog as the focus is heavily on suppression of who they are and why they live.

The Right Bed in the Right Spot

Resting and sleeping are not necessarily the same state. Good sleep where we feel safe and comfortable is important for us all.

Ethos: A Personal Trust Pilot

Experience changes our ethos. There are many pathways that will broaden our choices.

The Whole of The Dog

We cannot divide training into compartments of fast recalls, or sit for greeting, or loose leads as everything we ask of the dogs is interrelated.

Chasm opening up?

The more I see “sit, down, come, stay heel” as the essential basics the more I am moving further away from the general view of living with dogs.

And Why Can’t He Refuse?

I bristle at the insistence that a dog will assent to any request we make if they understand what we’re asking and if the rewards we offer are of sufficient value

What’s Cooking? A Warning About Recipes

Recipes for “training” dogs are so prevalent in how we live with and talk about them that their existence often goes unquestioned.

Location is Their Cue

We begin teaching the dog to go to a target, such as a mat or platform and in this process our focus is on the outcome – the dog can place feet on the object or settle down. But at the same time this learning is happening the dog is also noting the location: where this is happening in this room, in the house, relative to the food-machine (you).

A Family of Multiple Dogs

Another addition is not just an extra bed and bowl. It is important to build a home that is healthy, content and well-balanced.

A Cue or not a cue?

With thoughtful planning and a good understanding of the relevance of antecedent selection we can teach the dog the skills of sorting the wheat from the chaff, finding the bones of the exercise. This skill is critical to being able to distinguish between distractions, which are just cues for an alternative reward opportunity, and cues which signify a guarantee of success.

Top Training

A Day of Learning

A no-training day does not mean he gets a lazy day lying idly in the sun. Learning is still happening and this is significant and important for his development.

Evidence of learning

When we use the words “teach” or “train” child, person or dog, the operative term implies that the process is under the ownership of the teacher or trainer. What your teacher thinks you have learned may not be what you actually learned.

Duration: sustaining movement

Continuing and maintaining a specific movement


Preparing before you train and the final check list

Remote lures

Lures at a distance, separated from hands, pockets . Using reward stations, patterns, containers

More than words

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.

Going Shopping

This is a joint travelling adventure. It completely resets the learning and can easily extend the reinforcement process.

Not all lures contain food

“the direct use of the reinforcer to elicit the behaviour”
This should always be foremost in our mind, in that many alternatives lures are available.

Duration or is it Breakfast in Bed?

Teaching duration has become a very muddied understanding or what it is and how to teach it. This is partly due to how we use words that are the same but have entirely different meanings.

Release cue or stay cue

Many of us begin with teaching sit or down, and this is one of the earliest experiences of training with reinforcement. Is the sit, or down, going to be a terminal behaviour, or a temporary position?


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