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Cues - How to Create Clear Communication between You and Your Dog

Being able to create clear communication between ourselves and our dog is rewarding for both of us, but did you know it is also safer. When we know the next step to take to succeed, we can relax and move through our world with confidence. I believe the same is true for our dogs, as from experience dogs who are overly reacting with barking, biting, lunging and spinning are overwhelmed and anxious rather than confident and in control.

When the communication between dogs and ourselves is consistent and clear, the speed at which dog’s learn is increased.

On the surface this communication system from people to dog’s appears simple:

Match this word to this behaviour and you will get a treat.

For example: I say ‘down’ + dog lies on floor = dog gets a biscuit.

Dogs that appear to respond to our words always seem to impress. As a verbal species we put a lot of emphasis on the words we use, but it is useful to remember that dogs primarily operate in a world of scent and visual signals. Our words might not be making as much sense to our dogs as we think.


Keeping in mind that it is the dogs who select which cues are relevant to them keeps us thoughtful about the signals we are adding to their learning activities.

It is highly rewarding when you feel your dog understands you, and that you can communicate with each other. The relationship feels effortless, and we call this feeling connection. Training without connection feels like hard work, leaving owners feeling exhausted at the end of a lesson or a walk. One way to develop this deep connection is learning how to talk to your dog in a language they understand and to be able to interpret what they are saying to us. When we can do this, our dogs trust us to respond to their body language, to know when to stop, when to give them more space, and when to give them more support. To be consistent in communication we plan, manage the environment, practice, rehearse and reflect.

Dogs ‘talk’ almost entirely by visual signals of body language and by scent, whilst our choice of communication is verbal. To bridge this gap, begin by teaching your dog which signals are attached to which behaviours.

How do Cues become attached to behaviours?

Dogs are masters at observing their environment, which includes watching us. Good observation skills enhance hunting abilities and promote successful living within their social group.

Pups learn the patterns of feeding, including sounds and scents; by 5 weeks old they will be rushing to the fence in expectation of food.

You may see something similar in your dog:

  • Moving to the door when you put on walking shoes

  • Getting excited when you start preparing for training

  • Appearing at your side when you open the food cupboard door, however quietly!

If other people care for your dog you may need to be aware of the patterns being created by them. Think about what your dog is learning from the dog walker, day care facility, dog sitter and other family members.

There will be some behaviour patterns you want your dog to learn predictably, for example going to the computer to work = settle down on the sofa. There will be others that you want to be reliable on a verbal cue but not attached to one pattern, e.g. ‘recall’, because you would like your dog to come back in many different places.

As a simple example take the behaviour of ‘sit’, being taught in a kitchen, as this is often the first behaviour most pet dog puppies learn and the most likely location we will select for a training session.

Looking at the picture you can see that there are many potential cues for the dog to select

1. Being in the kitchen

2. Being in front of the doors

3. Facing the person

4. Having a person facing you

5. Food bowl to the right

6. Scent of food

7. Having food in the food bowl

8. Person's clothing

9. On a wooden floor

10. Person raising their right hand

There are also potential cues we cannot see

1. Person steps forward

2. Person says pup’s name

3. Person raises their chin, tilts their head to one side, raises an eyebrow

4. Person saying ‘sit’

In this set up what could the dog be learning?

The cues we most likely want to be relevant are the hand signal and/or verbal sit, but we do not get to choose which the dog selects unless we make it obvious. Is there a risk that the dog will learn that ‘sit’ only happens in front of us, only happens in the kitchen, that we always need to be holding a bowl in our left hand or that the right hand is most relevant? None of these are wrong, we just need to be certain that this is what we wanted the dog to learn?

To prevent these long-term irrelevant cues becoming attached to the behaviour we need to help our dogs discriminate between the static and variable cues.

A dog’s brain wants to conserve energy, brains want to find patterns quickly and settle into habits, once a brain is in this state then learning stops unless something unexpected occurs.

To keep our dogs in the state of learning we keep changing the set up by changing something after 3 - 5 reps, e.g. moving to a different location, standing at the side of the dog. Make sure that only the static cues stay the same.


Has your dog learned any patterns you didn’t intend to create or were unintentionally created by their former lifestyle such as:

  • Rushing out of the door or boot of the car as soon as it is opened?

  • Hyper excitement/barking, jumping up, biting upon the appearance of food or a toy?

  • Barking upon arrival at the park?

  • Pulling into a collar or a harness?

What triggers these behaviours? Can you work out which cues your dog finds relevant? Are you able to come up with a plan to help your dog change their responses using the information in this article?

I am fully back at work following my house move and able to offer private 1:1 sessions, and group classes.

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