When we bring dogs into our lives we set out to teach our new friends words such as “Sit” and “Down.” We expect a lot from our dogs verbally even though they do not speak. When you ask your dog to carry out tasks, you will either do so with “commands” or “cues.” These two words refer to the same concept, yet which of these words we use has a surprisingly profound effect on how we relate to our dogs and how we troubleshoot when there are problems in our communication with our dogs.
He’s ready and listening!
verb - Definition, Merriam-Webster Dictionary "to direct authoritatively; to exercise a dominating influence over: have command of"
“I gave my dog my ‘wait’ command, and he didn’t wait.”
There is a clear expectation for what happens when a command is given. We are the dog’s superior and they are our subordinate. If a command is given and the subordinate does do not do as commanded, they have disrespected our authority. A failed command is a dog problem. If you use the word “command” and a command is not carried through, it will feel like the dog has disrespected your authority. This creates an easy path for frustration and impatience from our side. The dog is to blame and discipline is often the solution.
If we change the word to “cue,” the dynamic changes. A cue is a prompt. If we give our dog a prompt and the prompt doesn’t yield a response, the value judgements that come with a failed “command” vanish, and we begin to troubleshoot communication. A dog’s response to a trained “cue” is only as strong as our training.
verb - Definition, Merriam-Webster Dictionary "to give a cue to; to prompt"
“I gave my dog my cue to ‘wait,’ and he didn’t wait.”
A cue is a prompt. If a prompt is given and the dog doesn’t respond, there is a snafu with the line of communication. This is very similar to computer coding – if I am building a website and my code doesn’t work, it isn’t because the website is “bad.” It is because something is off in the code and I need to figure out what. If a dog doesn’t respond to a cue, we problem-solve to consider why. If they know the cue well, then we begin examining why they weren’t motivated to follow through, and building motivation becomes the training goal. If the dog doesn’t seem to know the cue, then they couldn’t follow through because they were confused, and more or different training is the goal.
Command vs. Cue In Action:
Emotion or Logic?
Often an “understanding” way of approaching dog training, one that considers the dog’s perspective, is written off as being too “touchy feely.” Giving orders to our dogs and them obeying has a sexy appeal, but is it really a less “emotional” approach?
A failed command can lead to a focus of laying blame and punishment, and those emotional responses can obstruct movement towards a solution. When we use the word “cue” and a cue fails, we bypass the feelings of frustration and personal disrespect that are attached to a failed “command.” With a failed cue, we dive directly into determining the reasons for the disconnect in communication and figuring out how to get better results in a methodical, functional, and practical way; a way that is freed from emotional bias.
Is considering the dog’s perspective “emotional” in dog training, or is it “logical?”
This is Our Language; Not Theirs
Dogs sniff each other’s back ends. My dog even goes as far as to lick little samples of other dog’s urine off of blades of grass with the consideration and enjoyment of a person at a wine tasting. Dogs don’t spend their time plotting emotionally-charged ways to disrespect us. Dogs make decisions based on what is most interesting, tasty, fun, motivating and less scary or less painful in the moment. There is no deeply personal agenda when dogs don’t respond the way we want. Keep in mind that last part — “the way WE want.”
Dogs are just trying to live good lives with as much enjoyment and as little suffering as possible, just like us. Dogs are free from a lot of the value judgements that we humans are always inflicting upon each other, and ourselves. That is why people like spending time with dogs so much. The less we can let human problems get in the way of our time with our dogs, the more enjoyable our lives together will be.
I hope this article has explained how powerful an effect a simple word can have on our perception. I urge everyone to drop the word “command,” and use the word “cue.”
Language matters to our dogs — including the words they will never learn, like “cue” and “command.”