How to Teach Your Dog Words

By Lisa-Anne Manolius | January 11, 2010 ~ 3 Comments

Scruffy, sit, sit, sit, SIT! . . . Sound familiar?

Training words is often cause for much human frustration. Dogs attend to and learn our physical gestures and body language easily. Dogs notice facial expressions, small gestures and tones of voice that often we aren’t even aware of. Learning words is another matter. Unlike humans, dogs aren’t verbal. They communicate with one another and us using a wide range of physical gestures and vocalizations, not words.

If we want dogs to respond to words, it’s up to us to take the time to teach dogs what certain words mean. Keep in mind that it’s much easier for dogs to learn physical cues for a behavior — such as a hand signal that means “sit,” — than it is for dogs to learn what specific words mean.

Fortunately, with lots of consistent practice you can teach your dog words or “verbal cues” by following this simple three-step mantra:


Let’s break it down using “sit” as an example. You’ve taught Scruffy to sit using a food lure, and you’ve been training Scruffy to sit in response to a specific empty hand signal. By “empty,” I mean you are no longer holding food in your hand to lure Scruffy into position.

When Scruffy sits eight out of ten times in response to your empty hand signal, it’s time to start teaching her that the word “sit” means the same thing as the hand signal. Here’s how:

    SAY IT: First say, “Scruffy sit.” Say the word one time only in an upbeat tone. Articulate clearly. Repeating the word doesn’t make Scruffy learn faster. In fact, repeating the word will most likely land it squarely in the meaningless blah-blah-blah category from Scruffy’s standpoint, or she might learn to sit only after you’ve said the word several times in a row.
    SHOW IT: After you’ve asked Scruffy to sit once, show her the empty hand signal for sit. Don’t say the word and do the hand signal at the same time. If you do that, Scruffy will pay attention to the hand signal and ignore the word. If you tend to say the word and do the hand signal simultaneously, it helps to say the word, take a breath, then do the hand signal.

    Saying the word once, then doing the hand signal teaches Scruffy that the word means the same thing as the gesture.

    PAY IT: After Scruffy sits, click and reward her with a treat and tell her what an awesome dog she is.

Stick to the mantra, practice regularly, and one day Scruffy will surprise you. You’ll know she’s started to connect the dots when she sits after you’ve said the word, but before you’ve shown the hand signal.

To take word training to the next level, wait until Scruffy’s sitting in response to the verbal cue at least 8 out of 10 times. When she’s at that point, modify the reward scheme. Reward her with a yummy treat for sitting in response to the word. If she doesn’t sit in response to the verbal cue, show her the hand signal, and reward her with praise for sitting. This teaches her that sitting in response to the word alone earns a better reward than sitting in response to the word plus hand signal, and should motivate her to sit more reliably when you say the word.

Keep training sessions brief (3-5 minutes at a time) and expectations realistic. It takes most dogs many many repetitions of SAY IT, SHOW IT, PAY IT to learn words. Try to put yourself in their paws. They’re learning a completely foreign language, a task that must be as challenging for them as it would be for us to learn to “speak dog.”

Patient positive practice pays off. Happy training!


3 Responses to “How to Teach Your Dog Words”

  1. Mary H. 11 January 2010 at 8:40 pm Permalink

    Great post!

    Words are so hard. I think dogs most of the time learn to tune out our senseless chatter, which adds to the difficulty of teaching verbal commands. Plus, when we do, I think we often tend to be inconsistent in how we say the word or even what word we use.

    Took a video today while playing with Ginger, with a bit of informal training thrown in. Noticed when watching that usually I was saying “wait,” but every now and then was saying “stay” instead. No wonder the dog responds to the hand signal better!

    “This teaches her that sitting in response to the word alone earns a better reward than sitting in response to the word plus hand signal, and should motivate her to sit more reliably when you say the word.”

    I really like this suggestion. I’m going to have to try this, but it sounds like something that would work well. Ginger has a pretty decent verbal-only sit and down, but they could use a bit of cleaning up, and I think this would really help us.
    Sometimes too, I get an extra behavior thrown in. Such as, I ask for a verbal down, and she sits quickly and then immediately goes into a down. (or vise versa) I want to clean this up a bit, get rid of the extra behavior.
    I think I’ll try the suggestion you gave and only give food when I get exactly what I want, and give praise if I get the behavior, but extra behavior as well.


  2. lmanolius 12 January 2010 at 12:50 pm Permalink

    Thanks Mary! Your input is always so valuable. You make an excellent point about dogs learning to tune out our chatter. I agree – most of what we say, and we do say quite a bit all the time is irrelevant to dogs.

    Hope you have fun trying the exercise with Ginger, and that you’ll pop in and let us know how it goes.


  3. Casey Lomonaco, KPA CTP 12 January 2010 at 1:50 pm Permalink

    Fantastic post, Lisa! What a nice, succinct way to breakdown the skill of transferring cues.

    Well done, click!

    Casey Lomonaco, KPA CTP
    Rewarding Behaviors Dog Training

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