Don't Say it Until You Can Make it Happen
Why you should worry less about saying, “sit” and more about teaching it!
Dogs don’t speak English. I know, like duh, right? But many of us forget this, even if we know better. Humans are so comfortable with spoken language that we default to it when we don’t know what else to do. Your dog is acting up, so you start screaming, “sit sit sit!” because in the human world, using our voice works. Remembering to speak less to your dog requires practice!
When dogs learn, we have to teach them how to make associations between what we say and how they should respond. Dogs are much more likely to learn what is wanted of them by watching us, not by listening to us. Every time you say “sit”, you’re also raising your eye brows up, maybe holding a treat or holding your hand out, or even standing in a certain way. But what happens if you say sit without standing or holding your hand out? What if you say sit while you look at the ceiling or while you’re sitting on the ground? Will your dog sit? Repeat for down, come, leave it, etc.
Before speaking to your dog in our language, teach them what you want by using a language they understand: scent and movement. With any new behavior I teach I use food (scent) to lure the dog (movement) in to the position I want, then feed and release. I do this over and over and over until there is no question in my dogs mind that when the treat moves up she sits, down she downs, etc. What’s even better is when the dog starts offering these behaviors because they understand that sitting and lying down bring about good things.
During this stage, when I’m luring my dog, I don’t talk to them! I may mark with my voice “yes” when they get in to the position I want, but I’m not asking them with my voice, I’m asking them with my body and with food.
Once you get to the point where your dog readily follows a food reward, then you can start talking to them. But here’s the trick, you need to say your cue for sit or down or whatever right before you ask your dog in a way they already understand, with your body! You need to isolate your voice from the movements of your body, which feels super weird for most of us because we always talk and move at the same time.
Before you try this on your dog, practice on your own. I had my advanced obedience class practice this recently; I really wish I took video because it was hilarious. I asked them to say “pizza”, and then take a step forward. Don’t move until you complete saying the word “pizza”! Practice until it feels less strange, then you can apply this new rule when training your dog.
To speak to your dog, first make sure they know how to do what you are about to ask. Say what you want (sit, down, come, etc.) then move your food/body in a way that they understand so they do the behavior you asked for. Don’t repeat your word, if you’ve done your work then your dog will readily follow your food/body cue.
In the meantime, as your dog is learning, the rule I use myself is to make sure I don’t ask my dog to do anything until I can make it happen. Every time your dog hears a word like sit or down and does not respond to it, you are teaching them that these words aren’t relevant to them, which is the opposite of what you want.
Eventually you want to get rid of the food in your hand and you want to be able to cue your dog with only your voice. The better the foundation you set for your dog, the quicker you will reach that goal!
Because you deserve a good dog.
About the author: Jen Banks has been training dogs professionally since 2008. She started her own pet dog training company in 2014. Owner and trainer at Banks K9 Solutions, she provides group classes and in home training for family dogs.