Use the Right Words to Talk To Your Dog

Recently we learned a new skill on the boat. As with most things, it got me thinking about dogs. And how important it is for us to use the right words to talk to them.

Honey the golden retriever is coming.

I hear you calling me!

A New Language

When I first learned to sail, all the new words and phrases perplexed me: halyards, boom, reaching, sheets, yawing, etc. Sailing was a new language that I had no chance of ever making sense of.

Until I did.

Now I understand how important it is to use precise language aboard a boat. The last thing you need when the wind is blowing your boat over at a harsh angle is to hear your captain barking, “Grab that thingamabob beside you and let it loose.”

Much better to hear, “Ease the mainsheet.”

Especially since it will result in a more comfortable ride in a matter of seconds rather than a prolonged argument in high winds while everyone hangs on to their seats.

Our recent experience with imprecise language wasn’t dangerous. But it was frustrating.

And it helped me understand that puzzled look I sometimes see on my dog Honey’s face.

A New Skill

Until recently, we either anchored our boat or pulled into a marina for a night.

The sun comes up at Jim King Park in Jacksonville.

Sunrise at the free docks in Jacksonville, Florida.

But our arrival in St. Augustine, Florida gave us a new opportunity: picking up a mooring ball.

For less than half the price of a marina slip, we could tie our boat to a floating ball anchored to the river bottom. We’d also get access to the marina’s shower, laundry, and a free (pet-friendly) launch to pick us up and drop us off.

Mooring field - St Augustine

Some of our neighbors in the St Augustine mooring field.

One problem. We had never picked up a mooring before.

All I had to do was to bring the boat right beside the mooring ball while accounting for wind and current and bring it to a stop (without brakes) while my husband Mike snagged a ring with a boat hook, tied a line to it, and tied it off to our boat.

Easy, right?

Of course, I had just read the biography of a cruising couple who sailed the world for fifty years on an engineless sailboat. And it recounted the story of the captain falling overboard while trying to grab a mooring ball.

So it wasn’t a no-brainer. And we were understandably nervous about trying something new.

We called the marina on the radio to ask for the location of the mooring they had assigned us. The dock master replied that we should snag ball 16 “behind the white, two-masted sailboat.”

Schooner Freedom sailing at St Augustine, Florida.

This is also a two-masted sailboat. Glad we didn’t try to follow it looking for our mooring ball.

Almost immediately we were in trouble.

For one thing, the numbers on the balls were hidden in the waves. For another thing, there were two white, double-masted sailboats in front of us—Mike was looking at one and I only saw the other.

While we bickered over where the marina wanted us, the dock master observed our hesitation through his binoculars and clarified, “Behind the schooner, not the ketch.”

Yeah, thanks. Using the precise term the first time would have helped.

But the dock master was also sloppy when he told us to moor “behind” the schooner. If we were parallel parking, “behind” would mean to park our vessel so the bow (or front) was facing the stern (back) of the other boat. So that’s what we did.

But once we picked up the mooring, we saw the number on the ball’s side: seven. Not sixteen.

 Apparently, the dock master wanted us on the other side of the schooner from his seat in the dock office. Or abeam of the schooner.

The position we had chosen was abaft of the schooner.

Luckily the dock master had an eraser so he took our name off the reservation for mooring ball sixteen and added it to the reservation for mooring ball seven.

Mooring ball from the bow of our boat.

The mooring ball from the bow of our boat. Do you see a number? Yep, I didn’t think so.

But how much easier would our experience have been if he had used the proper nautical terms?

Use the Right Words With Your Dog

What does all this boat talk have to do with dogs?

Do you listen to yourself asking or telling your dog to do something? Or if you’re perfect and precise in your communication, to strangers on the street?

How do most people call their dogs to come to them?

“Sparky. Spaaaaaaaarky. SPARKY!”

For now, let’s forget that many dogs don’t even know their names. What about calling a dog’s name tells him to come? Especially when you use the name many other times throughout the day for other reasons.

And have you ever noticed the most common cue people use with their dogs? For many dogs, it’s “no.”

“No” when the dog sniffs too long. “No” when the dog tries to scarf down a chicken bone. “No” when the dog jumps up on someone’s lap. “No” when the dog starts to pee on the kids.

Honey the golden retriever sleeps in the cockpit.

I tell my people I like to sleep on rope. They tell me I like to sleep on lines.

Talking to Honey

Strangers who want to give Honey a treat are the worst.

The friendly store owner says, “Sit” and Honey plants her butt on the ground so firmly you can hear a little thud. Then she pops back up again.

The bearer of treats says sweetly, “No, sit.”

Again, Honey sits and in the microsecond before the person gives the treat, Honey is back on her feet.

Now the dog-lover with the treat is getting frustrated. Because they love and know a lot about dogs. And they think it’s bad to give a treat to a dog unless she does something for it first.

What they don’t know is that Honey did exactly what they asked her to do, “sit.” What they didn’t ask her to do is “stay.”

Honey is a literal-kinda dog. I think she’ll end up majoring in English.

Unluckily for Honey, I no longer allow strangers to give her treats. It’s not worth their happiness to mess up my beautifully trained dog.

Honey the golden retriever at the fort in St Augustine.

See, I know how to stay. You just need to ask me.

Sleeping with the Enemy

Of course, it’s not only strangers who use the wrong words when talking to my dog.

Honey and I have been known to share a bed with a handsome, dark-haired guy who does it all the time.

No, it’s not Pierce Brosnan. Go ahead. Keep guessing. I’ll never tell.

Anyway, Handsome Dude tells Honey “up” when he wants her to:

  • stand,
  • jump up on the settee,
  • put her front paws on the top step of the companionway so he can lift her into the cabin,
  • walk up the ramp onto the boat, and
  • jump from the dock to the boat.

These are the actual cues I’ve taught Honey for all those behaviors, in order:

  • stand
  • up
  • paws up
  • go aboard (or go ashore when we’re leaving the boat)
  • jump.

It’s like I have a different cue for everything!

And Honey listens very well. Once she knows what we’re asking her for.

Funny how that works.

So if your dog isn’t listening to you, maybe he’s being stubborn. Or just dumb.

Or maybe you just aren’t using the right words to talk to him.

Your Turn: Are you careful about using the same words every time when you want your dog to do something? Does it help?

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  1. Thank you for this post, it is very timely for us. We have a new puppy in the house and there are so many things to teach him. Now we have to find the words to fit the myriad situations, and be consistent. Our older dog who passed away not long ago knew the rules and needed very little guidance, so we forgot many of our words. But we’ll learn them again. And yes, it does make a difference using a precise word with the dog. I find they respond better.

    • Trouble coming up with the right verbal cues is probably the biggest reason I haven’t taught Honey more verbal cues. Coming up with hand gestures is even worse, but probably even more important.

      Good luck working with your puppy. I hope it’s the best kind of adventure.

  2. Mom has learned a lot about talking to us. She keeps it simple. She knows our name is not a command, and we use different word for different things, usually along with a hand signal. It all works pretty well.

  3. You’re at Castillo de San Marcos! Welcome to Florida.

  4. Guilty.

  5. I once made the mistake of saying ‘up’ to Sam and he happily obliged by jumping straight up on top of the receptionist’s counter at the hospital. Gah!!! We had been working on the paws up command but bless his little pointed head, he did exactly what I asked for. It startled the gal behind the desk (and embarrassed the heck outa me) but she was very good natured about it and Sam, despite being proud as punch for doing what he was asked, quickly got down. No harm no foul. Whew. Valuable lesson was learned that day. ?

  6. I pretty much talk to my dogs in complete sentences but they seem to sort it out.

    • I can’t even do that with most people. But your dogs are exceptional.

      BTW, how about that Iditarod? Love seeing an oldie showing the young ones how it’s done. 🙂

  7. I love this post! We’ve actually learned for us that the exact word is far less important than body language. If I’m sending Barley to a jump and accidentally call it a tunnel (or vice versa), she doesn’t care at all as long as my arms and feet are doing what they are supposed to–but if I tell her to jump and my feet are pointed at a tunnel, she’s going to the tunnel.

    • OMD, body language is everything! Dogs are so smart at following it.

      It sounds like to really improve my training chops, Honey and I should be working on some agility.

  8. Great post regarding dogs, sailing and communication in general. I think I did pretty well with my lab Gwen. One great word I taught her was “wait” which means for her to delay gratification briefly. Perhaps we are getting ready to move out of the car and she is excited and wants to jump ahead, but I need her to wait until I’m ready. I’ve often wondered how many words she knows. I think it is many more words than I’ve intentional taught her. She is of course a master of observation of behavior, she knows when we are getting ready to go out if it will be a trip that she accompanies us or not, she sadly knows when I put on my scrubs it will be a long dull day for her at home. Often she surprises me when in casual discussion with my husband she indicates that she understands far more than simple commands. So how many words do you think a dog is capable of understanding?

    • Wait is the best (and most underused) cue ever.

      Scientists believe the average dog knows under 20o words. But I’ve also seen articles estimating their intelligence as comparable to a two-year old human. Maybe you need to match Gwen with your grand baby and see how she does? 🙂

  9. Luke is the same way with “sit”. If I don’t put a “stay” immediately at the end, that butt is going to pop right back up again. For some reason he doesn’t like to eat sitting down. 🙂
    I am careful to use different words for different commands. But the truth is, Luke is not that good with words. But he figures things out. Sometimes “lie down” gets a sit, but if he doesn’t get the reward, he knows I was looking for something more, and immediately lies down. I almost always use gestures as well, he does much better with those.

  10. OMD, Ducky is the same way! Especially with Sam. With me, though, she knows by my body language and eyes when I mean “stay”, whether I say it or not. And 9 times out of 10, she’ll sit at the back door and wait for me to say “ok” before bowling me over to get outside. And I’ve taught her that pointing at one of the dog beds means a combination of “down/stay” and “quiet”. Most of the time I don’t even have to say “place” any more. ? Sam, on the other hand, says “place” a couple of hundred times before she’ll even get on the bed, and then she pops right up again as soon as he turns around. ? She knows exactly who’s wrapped around her little paws. ?

  11. I always talk to my dogs in a complete words, gladly they understand me. 🙂

  12. Meagan & Merlin says:

    I’m guilty with using one word for about five different things, but weirdly Merlin understands the context of what i want him to do.

  13. I learned early with Brut the value of hand signals and body language, my words meant nothing to him without a physical signal. I am guilty of using the same word for many things but with a body cue, they know exactly what I’m saying.

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