5 Rules for Making Good Dog Cues

Honey the Golden Retriever Shows Her Introverted Side

Why should I look at the camera? You didn’t tell me to.

My dog Honey is smart.

I’m sure she’s capable of learning any number of behaviors. If only I could think of what to call them.

It got me thinking: What makes a good dog cue?

5 Rules for Good Dog Cues

Good training cues work for both the dog and her person. I think the best ones follow five rules. Good cues are

1) Memorable

Some of the cues I use with Honey are wacky. But they work for me. Because I always remember them.

When I want Honey to stop sniffing her way deeper into a neighbor’s flower bed, I tell her “out of the flowers.” It’s what I want her to do so I remember it.

And when I take off her harness and leash after a walk and need her to move out of my way, I say “run away.” Yes, I always see the Monty Python crew fleeing in my mind. And I always remember it.

2) Short

My sister is impressed by her friend’s dog. Her friend gives cues like “Get off your bed, go downstairs, find your ball and bring it back up here.”

Did I mention her friend’s dog is a Border Collie?

Short cues are easier for you to remember and easier for your dog to understand.

3) Consistent

To my husband, the cue “come” means the following:

  • come to me (obviously)
  • let’s keep walking
  • get out of that flower bed
  • stop sniffing that rotted food
  • and, return inside the house.

Honey is a compliant dog and she usually figures out what he’s asking her to do. But I’m sure she’d love him to learn consistency.

4) Easy to Distinguish

Dogs don’t understand English. So using rhyming cues like “come,” “hum,” and “bum” is probably a bad idea.

Take pity on your dog and use cues that are easy for him to tell apart.

5) Have a Tone That Communicates

Many people use the cue “heel” when they want their dog to walk by their side.

There’s nothing wrong with that word. And it certainly makes sense in an obedience competition. But I prefer the friendlier “with me.”

I want Honey to hear in my tone that I’d like her to willingly walk by my side. And that she’ll have fun.

In the same way, when she jumps on someone, I say, “that’s rude.” The tone is deeper and goes down when I say  it. I suspect that a slow, deep cue helps lower her excitement more than if I shouted in a high-pitched voice, “off!”

When I want Honey to speed up, I speak quickly and with a higher voice (“hurry up,” “let’s go”). When I want her to calm herself, I speak more slowly and with a lower tone (“relaaaaaax” or “go to bed”).

Horse people have known this for years. When they want a horse to stop, they draw out “whoooooa.” They tell a horse to walk faster by making a high clicking sound.

Doesn’t it make sense that dogs might also respond to our tone?

Dog Training By the Rules

I’d like to teach Honey some things.

  • settle more quickly after greeting a friend
  • to move around my body on cue
  • to clean up her toys

Maybe now that I’ve thought about the rules for creating good cues, I’ll be able to find the right one to pair with her training.

There’s no reason Honey should be held back just because I can’t think of a cue.






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  1. I think my biggest problem with training Delilah is my consistency in cues. Hell sometimes I confuse myself.

    Her recall can be “here” “come” “let’s go” and I even use their names. There are certain things I need to learn the cues for, once I do that I can become consistent in teaching them to my dog.

  2. My peeps says cleaning up toys would be helpful. My fav commands of course are walkies and squirrels followed by dinner and treats.
    Have a terrific Thursday.
    Best wishes Molly

  3. Great and timely post. We are just embarking on some positive re-enforcement training with Jack & Maggie so your insights on good cues will help as we develop them! Thanks.

  4. Dogs don’t understand English? Hm? I think they have large vocabularies.

    Dogs are certainly better skilled in non-verbal communication than humans are. I find that “Hey” is a useful cue. It has dozens of meanings for my dogs apparently depending on tone and NVC. Anyway, “Hey” almost always gets the desired behavior from them.

  5. Sue at The Golden Life says:

    I’m with Jan — dogs have larger vocabularies than we humans give them credit for. For example, when they’re doing something I don’t want them to and I bellow out “get over here!”, they look up at me with the face that says “and get my butt whupped? No way!” and go back to what they were doing. Now don’t be thinking I’d do anything to hurt them, but they do need disciplining once in a while. Seriously tho, this is a very timely post for me, too. I’m working with Ducky every day, just before breakfast and just before dinner, trying to teach her good habits. And with my husband, trying to teach him the same good habits. :-) Ducky’s easier by far — at least she listens! I also use “with me” for “heel”. Sometimes I use “follow me” for come, especially while she’s on the leash and doesn’t have much choice.

  6. Have you read The Other End of the Leash by Patricia McConnell? She covers tones and how they affect dog behavior really well. It made me stop & think about why some of my cues might not be as successful as others.

    While my cues for standard training (the kind everyone does – sit, stay, leave it) are not original at all, I like to mix things up when we are training tricks. Both with verbal and hand signals. Hurley’s figure eight move is “Hippie Dance” and I bow to him as the full body cue for bow. It really makes us both have fun performing our tricks together, rather than him just performing for me or others.

  7. I’ve always believed that tone was as, if not more important than the actual words…When I say “let’s go” it’s in a higher positive tone & drawn out a bit…When i say “wait” it’s short, brisk and to the point. and in a deeper tone…and I add hand signals which seems to make a difference…I do make a point of using words that make sense to me…eg “let’s go” instead of “heel”

  8. I know what you mean. Since trying out the E-Z harness (btw thank you very much!) I want to use different cues for heel and loose leash and I’m having a hard time coming up with the words I want to use. Right now I don’t think the dogs are paying as much attention to the words as my actions and treats, so it’s OK. But I’m finding I’m having trouble remembering the words I was going to use. :) So I need something new and fresh and that makes sense to me.

    Great Post!

    Oh, and I can relate to the husband part as you well know!!

  9. My biped got really excited about point 5. She used to keep a horse and was taught, by someone who had kept horses his whole life, to change the pitch of her voice to reinforce a command or to calm the horse. Horses are far more aware of the slight changes in pitch that reflect emotion than humans are. She thinks dogs are sensitive to those changes in the same way.

  10. This may sound kind of obvious, but whenever I am issuing a verbal command, I precede it by our dog’s name—-i.e. “Dino, sit”. That way he knows I’m talking to him and not someone else in the elevator, park, house or even, dare I admit, talking to myself. (I’m pretty sure I read this in a dog training book somewhere). Having said this, pretty much the only command our dog obeys mostly consistently is, “Dino, sit”. Fortunately, this is also useful in stopping unwanted behavior — i.e. he can’t jump on somebody if he’s sitting. He can’t be walking obliviously ahead of me if he’s sitting, etc. He’s great at some other commands if he knows I have a treat in my hand. Otherwise — all bets are off. (I’m sure the problem is my training rather than a lack of desire on his part to be a “good dog”.

  11. Global Dachshund Crossposting says:

    Excellent post. I actually use “settle” when I want the dogs to do just that. Tone of voice , pitch & consistency are the big 3.

  12. I strive to not use words but gestures for cues. When I really need compliance, my tone drops deep and sharp: ‘LEAVE IT!!’ and they do…for the most part. It’s hard for me to maintain a deep tone, though, so I make sure my hand gestures and body language are consistent (well, I try). “Down” for Justus is an open hand held forward, like saying “stop.” The theory being if he ever were out in a field and I needed him to “down” for safety so I could get to him, I can raise my arm with my hand splayed out – “DOWN.” Haven’t had to try it…learned this from Sue Sternberg at a Petfinder Adoption Options workshop about 4 years ago.

  13. Houndstooth says:

    The big struggle at our house right now is over “quiet” and “speak.” I’d be happy if a certain German princess would even acknowledge that she heard me. I have the best luck pairing a command with a visual cue, and I’ve found that it makes me more consistent.

  14. Those Border Collies….I bet you could WRITE DOWN what you want them to do and they’d do it. :-)

    I use “With Me” also. I think I got it from one of those thousands of positive training books I read while trying to figure out the yellow one. :-)

    How about:
    Party’s Over (for settling after a greeting)
    Around (for moving around)
    “Put your toys away if you’re done with them.” Oh, right, that’s border collie speak. How about “Clean Up?” :-)

  15. Of course if the result is meaningful to the dog then it probably doesn’t matter how long or convoluted it is. I will say that having a dog named Beau (as we named our first dog) goes a long way toward preventing you from telling your dog No all the time :) I also found that if the dogs name ends in an “e” sound then people sound happier when they say it.

  16. Really great post! Many trainers and workshops say to keep a book of cues… How does that help me or the dog? Remembering is key! Lately pride has come in realizing that, without any cues at all, routine (CONSISTENCY!) has helped the boys know what to do. We leave the kitchen with our dinner plates, you go to your beds! You come in from a walk (likely muddy and wet) you go straight to your crates. Communication is easy when everyone knows what is expected… Can I get my husband trained like this?

  17. Makes a lot of sense. I find #2 and #3 difficult to implement, though. For #2, I can’t help but to talk to my dogs like people sometimes, which means I often speak in sentences. It’s the same with #3. I might say come to mean different things depending on the context. It’s a good thing my pups are smart. But it would probably be much easier for them if I followed your tips completely.

  18. Our comands are terrible. We’re a mess and ALL over the place. Somehow…Kol figures it out. He’s either really smart…or he’d be doing this stuff anyways. No way to know. I guess I’m just lucky.

  19. Cleaning up toys would be so good! Please share when you work that one out. Georgia only digs her toys out when she’s throwing a tanty and strangely, the man of the house doesn’t notice balls and bits of cotton and rubber lying around the house. Still working on “small”. Impossible!


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