Say the Cue Once

One of the hardest habits for pet owners to change is the habit of chanting our cues.  You will recognize the mantra:  ‘sit, sit, SIT, SIT’ or ‘come, COME, COME’.  We have all done it at one point or another with our dogs.  Our behaviour is usually driven by our dog’s non-response to our initial request.

I like the following analogy:

“Think of it this way: if your dog sees a squirrel run across the lawn, he’s got to act immediately if he wants a chance at catching that squirrel. That squirrel isn’t going to parade back and forth several times saying “Hey dog, didn’t you see me the first time? Here I am! Do you want to catch me? Do you want to catch me? Do you want to catch me?” The dog learns quickly: to catch the squirrel, he can’t hesitate; time is of the essence! He won’t be so slow the next time, that’s for sure!

This is exactly what you’re teaching your dog when you ask once. If the dog does it, he “caught the squirrel!” (earned his click and treat). If he doesn’t do it, “too bad, squirrel got away that time” (doesn’t earn the click and treat). Giving the cue just once leads to faster, more accurate responses by your dog1

In the end, you want your dog to understand that you’ll ask him once, and then it’s up to him to choose whether he earns a treat or not.

Why doesn’t our dog always respond the first time we ask?

There are a number of possible reasons why our dogs don’t respond the first time.  During the initial stages of training (where most of you are at this point in time!), the most likely reason is that our dogs don’t understand what we are asking.  Imagine being in a foreign country where you did not know the language.  A friendly stranger comes up to you and says ‘sentar’.   What would you do?  Would it be helpful if the person speaking repeated the request, said it louder, got angry?   Not in the least and yet we forget that our dogs our learning a new language as well.

Some of the other reasons why our dog’s don’t respond the first time to our cues are:

  • He didn’t hear the cue
  • He is distracted, nervous or stressed and not able to pay attention to what you are saying
  • You have not built up enough value for the behaviour you are asking him to perform
  • He is learning the cue and may need a second or two to think about what you just asked
  • You may be in a new environment and he hasn’t learned that the cue means the same thing outside of the house (generalization)

What do we teach our dog when we repeat our cues?

What happens when you say the cue multiple times?  You add an element of confusion for your dog. You ask for a sit and your dog thinks ‘okay it seems like ‘sit’ means bottom on ground.  Done…ah there is the mark (yes or click) and my treat’.  After one or two repetitions you are thinking ‘I’ve got a smart dog, he knows what I’m asking’ and now you ask for the behaviour again and this time (for one of the above reasons) your dog doesn’t sit right away so you repeat the cue.   Now for the dog that is learning this new language he isn’t sure if the signal to earn that treat is ‘sit’ or ‘sit, sit, sit’.  You get frustrated and your dog gets confused.

What should you do when your dog doesn’t respond the first time?

There are a couple of options:

  1. To break the habit of repeating your cues, say the cue and take a deep breath. You can’t repeat a cue if you are breathing in!                            Focus point is:  Inhale
  2. Go back to giving the cue when you know that your dog is going to offer the behaviour on his own. For a sit, wait until your dog starts to sit, say the cue, mark (‘yes’, or click) and give a yummy treat.  Stay at this level for longer than you think.  Each dog will require a different period of time to really understand what you are asking but with lots of repetitions, your dog will learn that ‘sit’ means bottom on ground and that bottom on ground means good things for your dog.
  3. Wait a second or two. If your dog doesn’t perform the behavior, take a few steps back, make some kissy sounds or say ‘pup, pup, pup’ to get your dog to follow you (this resets your dog), wait for your dog’s attention, and give the cue again.   Reward for the SIT or repeat this step if she doesn’t SIT.
    • If your dog fails three times in a row, then you have made it too hard. Stop what you are doing.  What do you think is too hard, how can you make it easier for your dog to respond? (See the above section ‘Why doesn’t our dog always respond the first time we ask?’)
  4. If there is a distraction in the environment and your dog doesn’t respond to your cue, move your dog farther away from the distraction until he can focus on you. Give the cue again.
    • If necessary, leave the distracting environment and continue to practice where there are less distractions.


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