I like to think I’m sensitive to the nuances of language. I spent a great deal of time in graduate school doing close readings of literary texts, especially poetry, and as a writer I struggle for precision, laboring over every sentence, sometimes every word.

I also know that good dog training is based on communication.

Yet until I listened to Kelly Dunbar’s interview for Animal Cafe with Roger Abrantes, who has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology, it never occurred to me that a common training term conveys something that is antithetical to communicating with your dog — unless you wish to communicate that you are a dictator.

That term is command.

Most of us use the word all the time without considering its implications. As Dr. Abrantes writes on his blog in a piece called Commands or Signals, Corrections or Punishers, Praise or Reinforcers:

…The majority of “positive” dog trainers have no problems using the word command and yet a command means “an authoritative direction or instruction to do something.” ….  The word has connotations of the military, the police and of authority in general… It beats me why we ban the terms dominance (without defining it properly) and punisher (whilst disregarding the correct, technical definition of the term) and use command with no concern whatsoever.

In her interview, Kelly calls her realization that the term signal could be used instead of command a light bulb moment. I felt like hitting my hand on the forehead and saying “D’oh.”

Dr. Abrantes, who speaks seven languages,  has written 17 books and loves dictionaries and definitions, realized that the word signal was more “neutral and benevolent” than command as early as 1994.  But the discovery “was in one of those impossible languages,” Dr. Abrantes tells Kelly in his humorous, self-deprecating way.

Besides, people only hear what they want to hear, what they are accustomed to. One anecdote I particularly liked in the interview was related to a seminar that Dr. Abrantes gave. He used the term signal consistently during his talk, yet all the questions that were addressed to him referred to commands.

Going hand in hand — or perhaps I should say whip in hand — with the term command is the term obey. Those who do not follow commands are, by implication, disobedient, and therefore deserving of punishment. Commanding is very different from signaling your dog to produce a behavior you desire. In the latter case, if the communication is unsuccessful, it’s not your dog’s fault but yours.

As it happens, Dr. Abrantes is often in a situation where the term command is appropriate: He works with police officers and detection dogs. But the commands are used between humans, not humans and canines, and they are justified by being applied in a situation requiring precision  — and by the fact that the need for them is recognized by all parties and that they are based on clear signals that all agree upon.

“I cannot obey a command I don’t understand,” Dr. Abrantes says. This is very different than our private lives, where “we don’t want a military relationship with our dogs.”

There’s much more. To learn about the fallacy of thinking we can “lead” dogs — as Dr. Abrantes observes, dogs are far better than we are at solving canine problems — and to find out the connection between serving too much mayonnaise and successful dog training, listen to the interview. It’s one of the most interesting — and illuminating — conversations I’ve heard in a long time.


12 thoughts on “Master & Commander: Decoding Dog Training Terms”

  1. “we don’t want a military relationship with our dogs.”

    But some people DO want a military relationship with their dog. They want their dog to listen to everything they say, without fault. Isn’t that the basis for obedience clubs?

    I personally use “cue” most of the time. Perhaps that’s incorrect as well, but I’m far from a literary major. I absolutely prefer it to command, though.

    I love topics like this. My brain needs more exercise.

    1. It’s true; some people want obedience and not much else from their dogs. And they may get it. They just won’t have a real relationship.

      As for “cue,” Kelly uses that too. There’s nothing wrong with it — it’s just a different word for “signal.”

      I felt the same way as you when I listened to the interview: That my brain was finally getting a bit of exercise!

  2. I normally use the word “cue”, as in “I gave my dog the visual cue to sit.” But I think I like the word signal even more.

    Words do have meaning. It’s very true that the words we use affect how we think and respond. Even if one doesn’t mean to actually command her dog, just by using the word she is creating a very different relationship, even subconsiously. Continued use of the word will just imprint this further. It’s why the double-speak in Orwell’s novel was so powerful. If you control language, you control the mind.

    I am looking forward to listening!

    1. Yep, there’s nothing wrong with “cue,” as I said to Ashley. It definitely doesn’t have the connotations of command.

      You’ll enjoy the interview — it’s more fun and stimulating than I could convey. I just found myself trying to quote everything!

  3. For the longest time “command,” didn’t bother me … then several years ago, it clicked. So, I too use verbal cue to describe that process, or I’ll often say that I “asked” Lilly for a behavior.

    1. I never really thought about it very much, I have to admit. My Frankie training is so informal — except for working on BAT for a while — that I don’t have terms like “obedience” in my head, or if I do, it’s more of a humorous allusion because Frankie is such a stubborn terrier personality. But I think “command” is still bandied about fairly freely by trainers who would never think of using the term “dominance” – and it never really bothered me before.

  4. I had used “command” without thinking till now! I will use “signal” and “cue” now instead. I especially found it interesting in the use of “command” to Dr. Abrantes’s lecture where he uses “signal.” Our brains can be so rutted no wonder it takes 21 days to develop a new habit! Wonderful post and I look forward to listening to the podcast. Oh, I so wanted to be a linguist when I grew up :).
    I am continually modulating my voice, too, as I tend to shout :(. No need from the dogs but usually comes from other frustration :(.

    1. It’s funny how, even when we think we’re listening attentively, our brains hear the words we expect to hear. I loved linguistics too except for those complicated sentence trees!
      You seem like such a gentle soul that I can’t imagine you shouting — but I *can* imagine the frustrations that would bring shouting on.

      I’m sure you’ll enjoy the podcast.

  5. i think it is necessary to make a “military-like” relationship with our dog. there are situations, in there our dog MUST do what we want him to do. it does not matter, how we call it, command, obey, signal or just advices. the most important is, that our dog shall respect us like a “commander”, but also with love.

    1. You are probably a spam bot but in case you’re just a disciplinarian I left your comment in — and respectfully disagree.

  6. For communication purposes, I agree with the fact that we should be using the appropriate scientific terminology, acting like the professionals we claim to be.

    However, on the note of positive dog trainers – some refuse to use half the jargon because it offends them. It’s hard to have a professional conversation using appropriate jargon with someone whose eyes glaze over at the mention of the term “positive punishment.”

    Also, with the word “command” in specific, I have a hard time connecting the dots. I think this might be due to the fact that, objectively, it’s not as harsh as it sounds. We attach personal feelings and connotations to this word, making it sound and feel far worse than it is.

    Still, it’s not really the appropriate description, so I can see where the use of it is inadvisable. (I sometimes use it when I have former “old fashioned” dog trainers in my classes. It’s pretty easy to get them to switch their terminology, but it’s also helpful when you don’t make them feel like they’re the ones using the “wrong” term. Especially since most of them don’t want to do that compulsory training anymore.)

    I think…though…that we get way too wrapped up in jargon and words and definitions.

    Just a thought. =]

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, JJ. I think there’s a divide between professionals like you who are interested in the theory and mechanics of positive dog training — along with the geeks like me and my readers who want to be educated in these ideas — and the general public, including many trainers who want to do right and might get defensive, as you suggest, if they’re feeling criticized. Still, words count, because they influence the way they we think. And thinking “command” immediately sets up a relationship where the dog is by definition “less than” rather than just a different species that we’d like to have live in “our” world.

      Really, some of the most radical things that Roger Abrantes said were later in the interview, when he tossed off ideas like the impossibility of “leading” or forming a pack with members of another species. It really made me shift my thinking around — which was very exciting.

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