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7 Tips for Better Communication with Your Canine

Behavior and Training  •   Jasey Day  •   Feb 14, 2022


Learning to communicate with your dog is a key ingredient of dog obedience and the marker of successful human-canine relationships, so it should be a key focus when you train your dog. The truth is, dogs are only as good at listening as you’ve taught them to be, and being a good listener can make a dog invaluable as a companion, protector, and playmate. 

When dogs have not had obedience training and been taught to listen and follow commands, there’s a better chance that they’ll get caught off guard or misbehave. That’s because dogs follow visual cues, such as human gazing and pointing, when they don’t know where else to look or listen.

Read on to learn how to communicate with your dog and improve your relationship with your beloved pup.

1. Give Cue Words Once

Learning how to give your dog commands can be challenging for both you and your dog. Humans often repeat commands out of frustration during a training session, which is not ideal. It is best to give cue words once when you train your dog, so that they follow orders immediately and after the first verbal cue. 

Repeating cue words during training sessions indicates to your dog that listening the first (or second or third) time is optional. Generally, you want your dog to comply immediately, especially if the requested skill is a recall command (“come”) and you need your dog to comply quickly due to an environmental hazard.

Many trainers don’t recommend using verbal cues until your dog understands the desired behavior. Talk to your trainer about when to add a verbal cue based on the specific skill and your dog’s progress.

2. Use a Consistent Marker Signal

A marker signal offers positive reinforcement when coupled with rewards. These signals indicate when your dog has followed a command correctly, communicating to the animal-in-training that following orders leads to what they want: treats! 

A marker signal can be anything from a verbal “Yes” or “Yep” to indicate pleasure to the sound of a handheld training clicker. Many trainers love the consistency that clicker training offers because clickers do not change tone or volume, unlike the human voice. 

You can also use an open starfish hand signal as a marker. This entails making a fist and opening it to a wide, five-fingered spread. However, keep in mind that all hand signals need to be clearly visible to deaf dogs. Your reinforcer, or treat, should occur within 1-3 seconds after your marker signal is given.

3. Use Hand Signals or Body Gestures

To better communicate with your dog, try pairing a verbal cue with a body signal cue as often as possible. Canines are experts at reading and noticing body language, because that’s how they communicate with other dogs, both in packs and in social situations.

One signal that works well is the open hand signal, which is used when training pups to sit. Simply open your hand every time you say “sit,” and your dog will come to understand that the action itself acts as a command. Eventually, all you will need to do is open your hand and your dog will sit. 

This is an incredibly valuable mode of communication when you take your dog to a crowded area or any setting where hearing is difficult. By associating hand signals with commands, you give yourself another way to deliver information to your dog, which can be a lifesaver in an emergency situation.

All types of human body language can help communicate with dogs as well. According to Mikkel Becker of Vetstreet, dogs can be taught to understand and react to a variety of physical signals from their human companions. When we consider that dogs use every part of their bodies, from the tip of their nose to the tip of their tail, to communicate, it makes sense that they would be open to all forms of communication.

4. Use a Release Word

Your dog needs to understand when exercise time is over. If you have asked for your dog to hold a “go to your mat” behavior or a sit position, the release word will indicate to your dog when they are allowed to be free. 

Examples of release words include: 

  • Okay
  • Done
  • Free
  • Break
  • Release

When deciding how to give your dog commands, choose a word that rolls off your tongue. A lengthy or difficult word is the last thing you want when trying to quickly communicate something to your dog, especially in a crisis situation. 

Finding a release word that works with your dog is valuable no matter their age, working as a great training tool for puppies and nice refresher course for senior dogs.

5. Show Your Dog How to Behave

Interrupting your dog with a “No” or “Eh-Eh” and giving them a time-out is a good way to avoid bad behavior. Help your dog succeed by showing them how to behave before they have the chance to exhibit undesired behavior, such as counter surfing

If your dog has the tendency to counter surf, it’s best to give them a place in the kitchen to lie down and reward them with treats and praise if they comply. Dogs may lie on their mats of their own free will or per your cueing of the behavior. You may also reward your dog with treats when they relax in the kitchen. If your dog is able to calmly stand near you with all four paws on the ground and a curious nose away from countertops, they deserve a treat!

Another good idea is to teach your dog to offer polite behavior, such as a sit, before they jump on houseguests. Set your dog up for success by having them on-leash and asking guests to approach slowly and calmly. For good behavior, provide your dog with a treat, and only allow guests to pet your dog when they are calm and all four paws are on the floor.

6. Increase Difficulty Slowly

Slowly increase the challenge for your dog. For example, they should first learn a skill in a quiet environment, such as your living room. As you learn to give your dog commands, you can gradually train your dog to master skills in every room of the house. Once they’ve conquered the indoors, try the porch, backyard, and during walks. 

In time, you’ll be able to train in high traffic areas, like near a playground or busy restaurant. Start by working up to 75 feet away, then 50 feet away, and then just a few feet away from activity. This kind of obedience takes time, patience, and effort, so don’t shy away from the challenge when it becomes difficult --- it’s worth it!

If your dog starts to get the hang of it, increase the duration of a training period or the length of time your dog performs a skill. Start with half a second, or one treat, before releasing your dog from a stationary pose. Then progress to half a second, and follow that up by trying to use two treats as a reward. Reduce the frequency of treats following additional training, to see if you dog has mastered the skill without the incentive.

7. Speak Less

Let the treats do the talking! The more you talk or rephrase words to your dog, the more confused they’ll become. As you learn how to give your dog commands, it is best to simply say a verbal cue once and then assist your dog by luring if necessary. Resist the urge to repeat the verbal cue or rephrase it. Rephrasing “Come” to “Get over here, little buddy” to “Come on over” will not help your dog understand any better.

Be aware that the majority of what you say is tuned out by your dog, since most talking is done between humans. Those (human) vocalizations have nothing to do with dogs, so they are likely ignored. Thus, you need to be clear in how to give commands to your dog. 

When you are talking to your dog, give a verbal cue and be silent. If you are training a new dog or a new skill, do not have a conversation with another human during training – have that conversation later so you do not confuse your pup with the extra banter. Keep in mind, all that added human interaction and conversation also affects your body posture, tone of voice, and attitude during the session.

What’s Next?

A dog who understands that your commands come above all else is less likely to cause an accident or get injured themselves. Knowing how to effectively communicate with your dog is the only way to ensure they will follow the commands you give them, even in the most stressful and trying situations.

But for those unexpected accidents and illnesses, AKC Pet Insurance (underwritten by Independence American Insurance Company) offers coverage that can enable you to get the care your dog needs, while sticking to your budget. Get a quote today and give your dog the pet insurance of champions!

Now that you have learned to more effectively communicate with your dog, check out these blogs to learn about reading your dog’s body language and understanding dog-to-dog communication. Happy training!

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