Developing a Common Language to Set Our Dogs Up to Succeed

Emmett, Lucas, and Cooper copy"The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” ― Mark Twain

As a writer, I strive to find the perfect word to communicate exactly what I want to say. Someone can trip, tumble, or slip, and even though those words mean that the person fell, they convey that idea differently.

There’s a huge amount of variation between whispering, shouting, singing, screeching, or simply saying, even though all those words mean that someone is vocalizing. English is a finicky language, and it’s full of variations and synonyms that allow us to put an artistic flourish on our stories. Your boss didn’t tell you she wanted cream in her coffee; she demanded that you put cream in her coffee.

While it makes for entertaining stories, that imprecision in language can cause confusion, misunderstanding, and frustration for our dogs. For instance, even though we know that “lie down” means the same thing as “down,” our dogs don’t. Think about it: How many times have you come home from work exhausted, your dog jumps on you, and even though you’ve trained him to “off,” in that moment you say “get down.” So, he keeps clobbering you. Or, you taught your dog to bark at “bark,” then the neighbor asks him to “speak.” He’ll probably sit there silently, maybe tilt his head, and try to figure out what the person wants.

Developing a common, consistent language is critical to communicating with our pups. Training is that common language. In other words, the goal is to teach your dog a specific action associated with a specific word, and then always use that single word to mean that single action. Sounds simple, right? Here’s a fun test of your communication clarity: On a piece of paper, write down every word you think your dog knows and a short definition of that word. If multiple family members or roommates work with the same dog, have them go through this exercise and compare notes. Here are some examples from my dogs:

  • Sit: Park your bottom on the floor.
  • Place: Walk over to your special mat and lie down.
  • Woof: Bark loudly!

Once you have a solid set of words and definitions, run through them with your dog. Does he think the words mean the same thing that you do? If not, revisit the misunderstood cues in your training sessions. Keep the list handy and reference it frequently to make sure that you and your dog stay on the same page. With clear, consistent communication, you and your dog will work together seamlessly – and you’ll have more joy, pleasure, delight, and fun together!

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Positively Expert: Maggie Marton

Maggie Marton is an award-winning pet journalist who focuses on the animal-human bond in her writing and her advocacy. She is a freelance writer and the founder of the popular dog blog "Oh My Dog!" She is also the author of "Clicker Dog Training: The Better Path to a Well-Behaved Pup."


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