I am often asked what specific verbal cue to pair with certain behaviors, or whether there is a special word that can convey automatic meaning to the dogs for those high-stakes skills like recall and loose leash walking. I believe some of this is rooted in the images still lingering from traditional dog training of past decades, as the “well-trained dog” is seen responding to loud delivery of common commands like “Come!” “Heel!” “Off!” etc..
My answer to these questions about what cue to use is always the same – whatever word you like best! There is no magic word, merely sounds or collections of sounds that our dogs can perceive. The real magic (or science, actually, but you can call it what you want J) is how quickly our dogs pair these meaningless sounds with specific behaviors and learn to respond to the cue – it becomes a green light to perform a behavior they already know well (and hopefully love to do!).
Even though there is no “magic word” that immediately conveys meaning and prompts “obedience” across the dog species, I do believe there is a special word that can have more than average usefulness to your individual dog.
Characteristics of this “magic word”:
- It is usually short and rolls easily off your tongue
- It is pretty easy to remember, because you likely already use it often
- It is easy to train, because your dog probably already has at least a basic understanding of what it means
- It is applicable to all sorts of situations
Can you figure out what the magic word is? It's your dog’s name!
This is the single most powerful and meaningful collection of sounds you have for communicating with your dog. When trained intentionally and positively, it is the first step in interrupting and redirecting lots of undesirable behavior; it is also the first step in prompting lots of desirable behavior!
Because of its usefulness in all sorts of situations, and the ways we as humans tend to take this cue for granted, the Name Game is the very first skill we teach in all of our classes and private lessons. And it’s just as important for dogs that have known their name for a while as it is for dogs that are just learning a name for the very first time.
So let’s do a little review! Start with the Ping-Pong Game, which is a great foundation focus exercise.
Ok, did your dog ace that one? Now you are ready for the Name Game!
Now that you’ve primed your dog’s name and turned it into a really fun game, your challenge is to use your name cue in more challenging situations. Here are a few ways to think about applying this during your normal routine this week:
- When your dog is pulling ahead on his walk, instead of tugging on the leash, first stop and cue his name. If he looks back at you, reward with either a treat or the chance to continue on with the walk.
- If your dog is about to get into something she shouldn’t (like the plate of food left on the coffee table), instead of yelling, first start by cuing her name in a happy excited voice. If she turns away from the food, throw a party with some high value rewards of her own!
- When you hear your dog barking in the backyard, instead of knocking on the window or shouting through the door, start by calling your dog’s name. If he stops barking (even briefly), praise him verbally, or take a treat or toy out into the yard to play for a minute.
If these or any other situations you apply your name cue are too challenging for your dog, take it back down a step and work at a slightly lower difficulty and then work back up.
Remember, with great magic comes great responsibility. Try to avoid using your dog’s name in anger, or over-using your dog’s name when he is in an overwhelming situation where he can’t respond the way you would like. But if you are able to put a lot of history into this one cue at easy, achievable levels, it can become like your magic word. Pretty cool, huh?