Voice Control

Does your dog really understand that command you’re giving him?

Most people will tell me their dog knows the verbal command “sit.” In fact, they’re very sure of it. They’ve said “sit” hundreds of times, and most of those times, the dog has sat – especially if the owner has a treat. So my clients have no problem insisting that their dogs know “sit.”

So often, though, the dogs tell me a different story. “Sit” is a word they hear sometimes, but what really means “put your butt to the floor” is a distinct hand motion. “The human will lift her hand up and back, like she has a treat, and if you sit, you will get something.”

When I tell owners, “Your dog doesn’t really understand the word sit, he’s following your hand motion,” they’re usually skeptical, until time after time, the dog follows my hand motion flawlessly and my verbal not at all.

“So how did you try to teach him his verbal command?” (I already know but I like to ask.)

This is where they will explain that they patiently gave the hand motion and then said “siiiiiiit,” before giving the dog a treat when he sat. Or maybe they said “sit” at the exact same time as they gave the familiar hand motion. And yet when we get rid of the hand motion, the dog is left clueless. Is he dense? Stubborn? Just plain bad?

Nope, none of the above. He’s had some sloppy training, but there’s good news: you can fix it.


There aren’t many easy fixes in dog training, but this one is pretty simple.

When we give familiar cues, like a hand gesture for sit, before or simultaneously with a new cue, we destroy the significance of the new cue. The dog is already in the process of recognizing the cue and/or performing the behavior. What you happen to say that overlaps this known cue isn’t meaningful to him, because from his perspective, he already knows what to do and is well on his way to eating that cookie, regardless of a word or two that might come out of your mouth.

When introducing a verbal command, we first and foremost must be sure never to block or overshadow our new cue with our old one. The familiar hand motion will always win the dog’s attention. Instead, try a simple formula: having your dog practice sit on the old hand signal, a few times in a row, simply to make sure you know the behavior will occur. Pay your dog for each correct repetition! After a few successful repetitions, keep your hands at your sides, totally relaxed and say, “Sit!” After a half second pause, give your hand signal. Mark and reward when the dog sits.

Do not allow your verbal command and hand signal to bleed together! They are separate events. One follows the other, always. The new command always occurs just before the old hand signal, but they never overlap.

-Do not move your hands when you say sit.
-Do not hold treats conspicuously in either hand.
-Do not bend over toward the dog when you say sit
-Do not take a step into the dog or away from the dog
-DO just stand there, with your arms relaxed at your sides, and say “sit”

If you are struggling with this, you’re not alone. You may need a mirror, video, or some one on one instruction to be aware of what you’re really doing with your body. If you feel like your dog responds inconsistently to your verbal command, you’ve been doing something inconsistently yourself, so start there. Many people are not aware they are not even moving their bodies or giving other overlapping signals to the dog.

Once you’ve cleaned up your handling, continue the pattern of verbal “sit” -> hand signal -> dog sits -> reward! Your dog will begin to associate the word “sit” with the hand motion that earns him a reward. Soon enough, he will anticipate the chain of events, and skip right to sitting on his own.

You can help this process by keeping him at an 80% success rate – put simply, he should be right 4/5 times that you ask him to “sit.” To accomplish this, simply make sure that 4/5 times you say “sit” you are following with your hand signal and rewarding him for being correct.

The fifth time, keeping your hands at your sides and your body still, say, “sit” and just wait. He may not do anything! DO NOT repeat the command, do not push his butt down, do not pull out a treat and beg him, and don’t give your hand signal. If he stares at you without sitting, stare back for a few seconds, and then simply walk to a new area a few feet away. Call your dog to you for a fresh start, and start back on a new set of 5 sits, complete with hand signal for 4/5 repetitions.

What you are creating here is a space for your dog to win or lose, a sort of bonus question. It’s fine if he fails – that’s why we’ve made sure he’s usually successful, so failure won’t confuse or crush him too badly. It’s also no problem if he simply doesn’t sit, because he simply won’t get anything. No sit, no reward. It should make him more eager to try next time – don’t under estimate the power of a failed repetition and a missed reward. Sooner or later he’ll guess at that bonus question and get it right, and when you pay him for it, a lightbulb will go on in his head.

Remember that this is a process. A dog sitting once on a verbal command does not mean he is fluent and reliable, just as a child who does one long division problem is not ready for a test! You need to adjust your expectations in accordance with his success rate. A dog who is attentive to the handler but fails to respond to a verbal command is not “blowing off” anything, but rather telling his handler plainly that he doesn’t understand. Frustration is human, but always realize that learning is a process, and what our dogs need from us is consistency, timing, and motivation. Commit to your own behavior in those areas and you will see the results reflected in your dog.

This formula works for teaching any new command or signal for any behavior.

New cue -> old cue -> target behavior -> reward

Your dog’s accuracy will reflect your handling consistency and your ability to hover around that 80% success rate while slowly raising expectations. Happy training!