Training Communications and Commands

How to give Commands:

When to Praise and When not to Praise 

Understanding How Dogs Communicate

When we talk to our dog do we know how much they actually understand? Even their own name must be taught to them. Yet we expect them to comprehend the nature and significance of our intricate language. I cannot tell you how many times people have said to me that their dog thinks it’s human.

I always give the same answer “No it doesn’t it thinks you’re a dog” though not strictly true as dogs are conspecific, ie they can only form a true pack with their own kind. It does serve to emphasise that dogs are not humans in little furry coats. Their method of communication is primarily body language, olfactory and some verbal communication.

I conducted a survey over the last few years on what commands my clients used with their dogs. 97% used the word “NO” for almost every situation. 62%prefaced most of their commands with the dogs name ie: “Rover NO” “Rover Come” “Rover Sit”.  Gary Larsen a brilliant cartoonist who produces The Far Side; has an amazing insight and humour into human and animal behaviour; he is very aware that words are not enough when communicating with a dog. The owner scolding his dog shows what he is saying and what the dog actually hears. “Oh Ginger, that was a bad thing. You’re a bad, bad dog, Ginger.” What the dog hears is: “Blah Ginger, blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah, Ginger.”

Since dogs must learn what each individual word means, all the other extra words are just a bunch of “Blah, Blah” ! The problem with constantly using the dogs name before a request or command is that it actually diffuses the command. Watering it down to such an extent that it becomes the primary word that the dog picks out, often missing the command itself.

We also have a habit of barking commands at our dogs like a parade ground sergeant major. Sometimes I have to tell my clients not to bellow at the dog. For a sensitive and timid pet, this can be terrifying, and for a bold dog an excuse to bark back. The other common error is using gender after saying “good” ie “good girl” “good boy” If we are going to use the word “GOOD” as a target word like a clicker, then we must keep it short and sweet.

Talk in soft conversational tones rather than barking commands, when requesting a dog to do something, like sit, stay, or down. If you have made it clear what you want and the dog totally ignores you, then your voice can become more commanding. We don’t constantly bellow at people, therefore why do so to our pets. Especially when their hearing is far more acute that our own. Perhaps the same trigger that makes us talk to foreigners in loud slow voices, as if they are imbeciles?

Tone is vitally important as is body language and hand signals. Numerous tests and experiments have confirmed that by coupling tone, hand signals, and body language really helps our dogs to understand what we are trying to convey. Female owners probably have the easiest time with the “Good Dog” tone of voice – the one that is high pitched, soft, sweet tones, generally in falsetto.

Men have the easiest time with the “Bad Dog” tone – the one that is deep and almost like a growl. Men also have the easiest time with the “Commanding” tone – the one that is neither good nor bad, but has a firm (often lower) timbre. Try telling your dog that it is bad in a “Good Dog” tone; then try praising using the “Bad Dog” tone, watch your dog’s reaction to each one. They will normally react to the tone not the actual words themselves. Basic Training

To start to teach your dog basic commands you need to combine the words with an action that shows the dog what you want, couple that with positive reinforcement. Try saying your dog’s name, does the dog respond (look at you, wag his tail, or move toward you)?

Your dog should always have a pleasant experience when he hears his name – his name should never have unpleasant connotations. Some people create a new “Bad Dog” name to use for those times you need to check a misbehaving dog. Imagine if you were a dog and 50% of the time when your name was spoken, you were yelled at or chastised. It would not take long to work out not to look up if their is a strong chance you are going to be shouted at, you can picture the dog thinking.

“Look at my paw because my face ain’t listening”

To teach your dog his name. Position your dog in the middle of two people, close enough to touch,. Get some treats, high value ones like cheese or. Say the dogs name cheerfully if he doesn’t respond either touch his ear or his muzzle, When the dog finally looks in your direction immediately use your “Good Dog” voice, praise by using the word “good’ take it” and give a high quality treat, see my article on the walking to heel and the off command. You could also use click and treat. Practice this until looking at you happens without the touch or treat, this takes about five days doing the exercise for a few minutes each day, continue to practice once a week for the dog’s entire life! It reinforces the communication link between owner and pet.

When should you Praise?

When and when not to praise! If we praise the dog for every action then we fall into the trap of praising bad behaviour. Let me give an example. You are walking down the road with your dog it lunges at a person, dog, or cat, you say “OFF” or “LEAVE IT” followed by “GOOD BOY” you have just praised the action of lunging. How often have you seen this happen? These are some of the commands I use including when and when not to praise. You will note the word “NO” is not included

Basic Commands Jumping up:         OFF! ! No praise. To praise here would be to praise the jump. You should set the OFF command by  using the Jingler technique (see The Jingler)

Heeling:                HEEL step off with left foot praise for good behavior using what a good boy See the Jingler on my main website.

Scent Marking Picking up things: “LEAVE IT” corrective twitch on lead activating the Jingler no praise

Mouthing:            “OW!” (loud) hard stare then turn away from the dog. Do not to move the hand away. No praise should be given atthis time only if the dogs returns and doesn’t mouth and just licks then praise and treat if this doesn’t  work use “OFF” command see my article on this technique in conjunction with the Jingler

Things in Mouth:  “DEAD” or “DROP”  get dog to release then praise, exchange for tasty treat if dog will not release normally.

Sit:              SIT Move treat over top of head when the dogs bum hits the floor, praise and treat using the word “Good”  “Take it” never say SIT DOWN this confuses.

Down:      Initially get the dog to sit before the down. You can encourage the dog to go down by using low tables or  chairs so the dog needs to go down to get under for the treat You can  also use titbits and lure the dog by putting them in between the front paws and gradually moving it away so the dog goes down to get it..

Doorways:      Never let your dog precede you through doorways. Shut the door every time the dog tries to push through, the dog then thinks its actions are shutting the door and will look to you for guidance.  When the dog looks at you immediately praise and treat. This is not for rank reduction but for safety

Recall:             DOGS name then COME or HERE lavish praise and treats at first to incentivise your dog, crouch down and open knees and arms in an inviting manner to encourage your dog to come. Treat and praise all returns irrespective of length of time. You can also use a lunge rein, which is a 35-foot lunge rein lead, that is used for recall see my website.  I also use a whistle it works far better than the voice. All my dogs are trained to respond to a whistle.

© September 05

This article was written by ©Stan Rawlinson (The Original Doglistener). A professional full time Dog Behaviourist and Obedience Trainer. You can visit his website at for more articles and training information.