Do Dogs Understand Words?


Reprint of blog posted March 30, 2013

In my last entry, I mentioned that I observed an obedience class recently and I was very disappointed with the method of training being taught. The list of issues is long, so I want to address them one at a time. Today, my topic is the choice of commands used in training dogs. OK, I will concede that this particular class was being given to basic average pet homes, so the instructor needed to keep it simple. However, should any of those dog/handler teams wish to go on with their dog’s performance career, well, they pretty much messed it up from the start.

Let me just say up front that based on my own experience, I’m convinced that dogs don’t understand words. I know there are border collies out there that have enormous vocabularies, so clearly, they can learn to hear the words and associate them with things (nouns) and activities (verbs), but your basic average dog isn’t at that genius level. What most dogs hear is the intonation you use when you say the word. So, rule number one, it is critical that you learn and use a specific intonation with each command. If you say “yes” as a verbal reinforcement, you might say “yeeeeessssss” in a slow affirmative tone of voice. If you say “come” you should say it in an excited happy voice - never as a mean “don’t make me come over there” tone of voice - even if you are ticked off at your dog. (Personally, in that situation, I am grumbling things like “get over here you dirtball sleezebag spoiled rotten little so and so”, and then when they do come to me, I quickly switch to praising them for coming to me. My dogs all know that grumbling means Mom isn’t happy.) Shouting “SIT” or “COME” or “DOWN” is completely unmotivating to a dog. Shouting commands is more likely to teach the dog to blow you off. If I need to use a louder voice so they can hear from a distance, I’m using a higher pitched excited voice rather than an angry one. Dogs definitely know a happy voice when they hear it. OK, they probably also know when it’s a fake happy voice, but at least I’m trying.

Rule number two with commands is don’t use them until the dog knows what you want them to do. That sounds counterintuitive, but you can teach a dog to do something without using a word. Once the dog understands what you want, THEN you add the word to the command. They are much more likely to understand the word/tone of voice associated with the behavior after they know what the behavior is. Clicker training is absolutely the best method of teaching a behavior first. Well timed reinforcements help shape the dog’s behavior. Add the command only after the dog knows what you want. There are many resources out there on clicker training - here is one well known and popular e-book and daily lesson resource.

Rule number three with commands is don’t repeat a command (I prefer the word "cue," although "cue means more than just the word - it can also mean the gesture). Say the word once and wait for a response. The dog may be processing the information, or doesn’t quite associate the word/tone with the desired activity. They need time to think it through. Be patient. If it becomes clear that the dog is not understanding (or blowing you off), then you might repeat the cue. Don’t be one of those people that says “Sit sit sit sit sit” and then the dog sits. The dog might learn that the correct command is “Sit sit sit sit sit”. Ugh.

Finally, a few words on the meaning of your command/cue to your dog. Everyone knows the basic commands, or at least they think they do. However, you need to think about what exactly the command means before you teach it to your dog. Here is my list of cues and their meanings, at least theoretically, to my dogs:

“Perp” (or your dog’s name) - means Perp, look at me - or towards me.

“Watch” means look me in the eye.

“Sit” means put your butt on the ground with your hind end straight and both front feet on the ground.

“Platz” means elbows on the ground, butt on the ground, look like a sphinx, be ready for action.

“Down” means lie down, and you can be relaxed and roll onto your side if you want because you will be there for awhile.

“Stand” means stand up on all fours.

“Wait” means stay exactly as you are until I release you, and you will be coming toward me when I release you.

“Stay” means stay exactly as you are until I return to you and you are released from that position. I also use a staccato stay-stay-stay sound that means I am walking through this door and you are not.

“Off” means remove your paws from my body, the kitchen counter, the chair. Put your paws on the ground.

“Kennel up” means run to the crate, get inside, turn around and sit facing me.

“Get it” means run to the thing I threw out there and bring it back. Ideally it means bring it all the way to me, sit in front of me and hold it until I ask you to release it. Q is the only dog I have that actually understands the entire sequence required by that command. Other people use “Fetch” or “Bring” as this command.

“Release” means let go of the thing in your mouth.

“Find it” means go use your nose to find the thing(s) we are after. Sometimes that thing is a dumbbell among a pile of dumbbells that smells like me, or it might be an article or several articles that smells like the person we are tracking.

“Over” means jump whatever you are looking at. Some people use “hup”. You have to be careful with this one in agility. If the dog is looking at the wrong jump, you are in trouble. I don’t use “hup” because I use “up” to indicate that I want the dog to climb up, such as stairs or an A frame.

“Come” means move straight to me, sit in front of me and look me in the eyes.

“Here” means aim in the direction of my reinforcement zone, near my hand, on whichever side my head is turned towards. I have also heard people use “at me” for this command.

“Get Out” means move away from me, although some trainers say you should rarely or never use this command.

“Hunt ‘em Up” means go run way out there and find some birds.

“Touch” to me means put your paw on it. Others use it for a nose touch.

“Get Ready” means move into left side heel position and sit straight, with both front feet on the ground and look at me.

“Let’s Go” to me means walk beside me on my left side in traditional heel position, although with my more recent dogs it can also be right side. In agility, we need the dogs to work on either side, with the turn of my head as the signal to which side.

“Break” means you are released from whatever Wait or Stay that I put you in. Some people say “Free”.

“Whoa” means freeze in place. We use this in hunting to mean stay in that nice point until I release you.

“Table” means get on the pause table in agility or get on the scale at the vets office.

“Go” or “Go On” means run out in front of me - and this is why I don’t use a “No” command.

I have commands for the agility equipment, such as “Walk it” for the dog walk, “Teeter” for the see saw, “Tunnel”, “Chute”, “Tire”. The key is to find words that don’t sound like other commands.

These are just some of the commands I use. The key is to have your own set of criteria for the meaning of a word that you use. I hear people use “Down” to many many different things, like lie down, get off the couch, don’t jump on me, etc. You and your dog will be much happier if you train a specific command for a specific behavior, so you can have agreement on what a command actually means. It’s up to you to make it a partnership - so enjoy puzzling through how YOU plan to pick words/intonations to initiate specific behaviors. Now, quit reading blogs and go play with your dog!

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