How good is my dog at understanding the words I say?

Recently I visited a friend who has two energetic border collies and while we were sitting outside a friend of hers pulled in with her children. The kids got out of the car, and were, well normal kids, which got the border collies all excited and jumping up on them. The kids started repeating ‘OFF’ to the dogs, but as soon as their Mom saw this, she interrupted the kids by calling their name. “Have you taught these dogs what ‘OFF’ means?”, she asked them. “No”, the kids replied. “Then stop saying it!”, their Mom said. I was in awe!!!


Dogs are very bad linguists. They have no way of knowing what our words mean, I like to illustrate this point in our classes by switching to speaking Finnish for a while. Yup, that’s how your dog feels when you talk to them. Dogs learn words by association, which we see in our every day life: it doesn’t take many repetitions to teach a dog ‘let’s go out’, ‘let’s eat’ or ‘squirrel’ because we say these things right before or at the same time when we get up and grab the leash, start filling their food bowl or a squirrel runs up a tree. The word is followed by a consequence that is very meaningful to the dog, and they will start responding to the word pretty soon. Like Ivan Pavlov’s dogs responded to his bell.

The exact same principle applies to when we want the dog to perform a behaviour when  we say a particular word, which also called ‘a verbal cue’. We have to first start saying the word when the dog is about to do the behaviour in question. If we first say “off” when the dog is jumping on us or “leave it” when the dog is about to eat garbage, what do you think the dog will associate the word with? Yup, you got it, quite the opposite from what we want to teach them. That’s why it is important to first teach the dog to offer the behaviour, then we can start to say the word when we can bet $100 that the dog will offer it again. This way the dog will associate the verbal cue with the behaviour they are doing. After enough repetitions a simple test will reveal whether your dog got the word: say it when they are not looking at you, will they do what you want?

A big part of training is generalization. What this means is that the dog will not understand the words outside your kitchen if you have only trained them in the kitchen. Learning for dogs is very context dependent, it doesn’t mean that they are stupid or stubborn if they don’t “sit” or “come” in the park. We need to train the dog to respond to the verbal cues in different places, under different distractions, such as people moving around, cars, other dogs, tennis balls etc. Also, dogs don’t necessarily transfer words spoken by one person to another. Everyone has a different tone of voice and often our body posture becomes part the equation as well. For example, if we always lean forward when saying the word “sit” most dogs will think that it is the leaning forward which is telling them what to do. No wonder they have no clue what to do if they are not facing you! That’s why I like to do silly things when teaching verbal cues to dogs: I sit, stand, move around, scratch my ear, do jumping jacks. Recently my own dog was playing with his buddies outside, started chasing another dog and then one of the other dog owners decided to yell “sit” to my dog when he was in full motion. Seriously, did you really think it was going to work?! My dog’s sit has never been generalized to a distance longer than a few meters away from me, he has never done it with a complete stranger and certainly not when he is running after another dog!

Next time when you are teaching your dog to listen to the words you say, think about the following:

  • Say the word 10-20 times first when to dog is about to do the behaviour you want
  • Reward them every single time when they do it at this point, no-one will work for free!
  • Test the word, say it when your dog is not expecting it. If it works, great! If not, go back to the previous step.
  • Take the word and the behaviour on the road: start asking your dog to do it in different places under different distractions. If nothing happens, think of the following: Does my dog value the reward that I have? Are the distractions too much for the dog to be able to handle the task?
  • Repeating the word teaches your dog that they have a choice. We all want to have elegantly trained dogs who respond to us right away. Therefore, make the training successful and build the behaviour from easier environments to harder ones gradually.




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