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How to Get Your Dog to Do As You Ask

How you phrase commands is key to getting your dog to respond

By: Stanley Coren

Last Updated:

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Illustrated by Kailey Lang

So your dog is not obeying your instructions. She has clearly learned the basic commands of “sit,” “down,” and “come,” but sometimes when you issue those instructions she obeys and sometimes she acts completely clueless and does not respond. This problem is not unique to you and your dog—it is even a concern for expert dog trainers who compete at the highest levels of obedience competition. Fortunately science has an answer that might help you to get your dog to more reliably react to your commands.

I was recently at a dog-training seminar. During one of the breaks, a small group of highly respected dog trainers and dog obedience competitors had gathered together, cardboard coffee cups in hand. They were doing what dog handlers often do when they get together, namely discussing how best to get dogs to do what you want them to do. It was a rather vigorous debate, and this time the issue in dispute was whether or not to use your dog's name as part of the command. The group was all in agreement that it was critical that the dog must be paying attention to the handler in order to get a reliable response, but whether the dog's name was needed to capture that attention was up for debate.

One highly successful dog obedience competitor insisted that if the dog is already paying attention to its handler then using his name as part of the command is not only unneeded, but might actually be a distraction. He argued that the using the dog’s name merely provides the dog with a sound that conveys no additional information in this situation. In fact, this dog trainer suggested that giving the dog's name simply delayed the processing of the actual command and might be a meaningless distraction.

A second member of the group pointed out that dogs live in a sea of human verbal sounds and the dog's name serves to alert the dog to the fact that the next set of sounds coming from the handler's mouth is directed at them, rather than being part of a conversation that you might be having with another human being. She suggested, “If I say ‘Come here!’ how does the dog know who I am talking to? It could be that I was speaking to the person next to me, or perhaps to someone across the room, or if I am in the show ring I could be talking to the judge rather than specifically issuing an instruction to my dog. However, if I say ‘Lassie come here!’ there is no ambiguity and the dog immediately knows that the command was directed at her.”

The third trainer insisted that using the dog’s name was an opportunity to capture the dog’s attention before issuing the obedience command. She said that, especially in competition, she always gives the dog’s name and then pauses for a second to be sure that the name had captured the dog’s attention and her pet had focused on her, before delivering the actual obedience command.

The debate was lively and after a while one of the trainers turned to me and asked if there was any actual scientific data on this matter. I vaguely recalled that some research had been done on this issue but my age-addled memory could not retrieve it at the moment. However, at the end of the day upon returning home, I found that my data filing system was better organized than my brain; there in fact had been a study published in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science that directly addressed this question of how to issue an instruction to your dog and whether using his or her name really mattered.

The research had been done by Maya Braem and Daniel Mills of the Animal Behaviour, Cognition and Welfare Group at the University of Lincoln in the UK. There were two parts to the investigation. In the first, 56 dog handlers were videotaped giving their dogs a “sit” command during dog obedience classes. The idea was to look at a well-learned obedience command in order to see how reliably the dogs responded and to determine which aspects of the delivery of the command influenced the dog's performance. Analysis of the tapes showed that two factors were very important. Just as the dog handlers had presumed, the data showed that it was important that the dogs be paying attention (looking at the handler) for them to respond reliably. The data also showed that saying anything to the dog before issuing the command—even if it is an attempt to get the dog’s attention—is not helpful. For example, if instead of simply saying “Lassie, sit!” you instead say “Look at me. Lassie sit!” this will actually decrease the likelihood that your dog will respond consistently.

Based on these results, a second, more controlled study was run with 12 dogs. The idea was to see how well dogs responded to a well-known and familiar command like “sit” or “down,” as well as to a recently learned command (in this case “uff” which meant to jump onto a raised surface). Once the dogs were trained to a predetermined criterion, they were tested to see how dependably they responded to four ways of delivering the obedience command. These were: the verbal command alone; the dog's name followed immediately by the command; the dog's name followed by a pause of two seconds before issuing the command; or having a meaningless word sound (here they used “Banane”) preceding the command.

The comparison between giving the obedience command alone (e.g. “Down!”), versus the dog's name directly preceding it (e.g. “Lassie, down!”), showed absolutely no difference. In other words, saying the dog's name did not provide an additional advantage in reliability and the researchers concluded that dogs tend to view these two ways of phrasing an instruction as simply being alternate forms of the same communication.

What about saying things other than the dogs name? The data show that giving irrelevant word sounds before the command causes the dog's performance to deteriorate for both well-known and newly learned commands; however the effects are considerably greater for recently learned instructions. The researchers suggest that any additional verbal information before the command will reduce the accuracy of the dog's performance, so one should avoid things like “Ready, down!”

Finally, the data indicated that if you are going to use the dog's name as part of your obedience commands then you should do so without any gap or break. If the dog's name was given and then there was a two second pause before giving the command, the dog’s performance was significantly less dependable when dealing with newly learned commands (such pauses seem to have considerably less effect on well-known, familiar commands).
The take-away message? If your dog is paying attention, using or not using her name when issuing an obedience command makes no difference.

However, meaningless (to your dog) preamble or additional instructions proceeding the issuing of a command results in poorer performance reliability, especially when you’re dealing with commands your dog has just recently learned. In other words, science is telling us we should cut out any polite but extraneous conversation when giving instructions to our dogs and simply, without pauses or breaks, tell the dog what you want him to do. Which, come to think of it, just might be effective (if not overly sociable) communication advice overall.

Last Updated:

By: Stanley Coren
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