Cues versus Commands: the importance of language in dog training

As humans, the way we use language says a lot about who we are. Language choices say something about your intentions (are you speaking to appease, intimidate, amuse, etc.). Before I was a dog trainer, I certified as a life coach and earned an M.S. in Education and spent many years teaching people about effective communication. Effective communication meaning that you speak in a way that aligns with your intent and is understood by your listener.


COMMAND = to give an authoritative order

CUE = a hint or indication about how to behave in particular circumstances


I won’t go into all the theory here, but in terms of communication, you aren’t speaking in a vacuum. You are partnering with your listener in a conversation. This is also true when you are communicating with your dog. You and your dog naturally speak different languages. However, through simple sounds and gestures, you are able to communicate across your species. This is an amazing accomplishment and is due, in part, by the generations dogs and humans have spent evolving together.

three dogs talking

When thinking about training your dog, you may not think that you need to review your mindset first, but you do. The way you approach training your dog has everything to do with your – and your dog’s – success. If you approach training from a place of “my dog must obey my every command out of respect for me because I’m the pack leader” you are setting yourself and your dog up for a lot of heartache. This mindset leads to resentment over giving your dog rewards and a greater potential of the threat of punishment. The energy around this mindset can cause fear in your dog and frustration for both of you.

On the other hand, a cue is a simple sign that you are making a request. It’s the difference between “SIT – or else!” and “Sit, please.” Big difference. Ordering your dog versus making a request.

Dog training is a skill but it’s a skill that requires a relationship with your dog which means you will have to consider how you feel about that relationship. As I mentioned earlier, in addition to being a dog trainer, I have an MS in Education and am a certified life coach. These disciplines help me tremendously in my dog training work which is as much about working with people as it is working with dogs. That’s one of the things I love about it. I get to educate people about their dog which empowers them to create the life with their dog that they dreamed about.

The difference between these two words is in your mindset (your emotional attachment to the language). A command is an order with the implied emphasis on blind obedience much like one might find in the military. A cue on the other hand, is more like a request. A cue is a signal that you would like your dog to do a particular thing.

Cues give your dog choice and allow him to use his mind where a command does not. A cue is spoken between partners working together where a command is given by a boss to a subordinate. Now, this distinction may seem like I am overthinking semantics but it speaks to larger issues around dog training in today’s world.

Traditional training that emphasizes commands expects blind obedience from dogs with any hesitation being seen as disrespect. Commands are about the human and not the dog. Cues, on the other hand, are part of a style of communication that emphasizes cooperation between two partners. It recognizes a dog’s sentience and intelligence and a lack of response signifies misunderstanding or hesitancy for another reason rather than disobedience. You can see how these two mindsets are very different and frame our relationships with dogs in very different ways.

On the other hand, if you approach training your dog from the mindset of “I’ll show my dog what I’d like her to do when I say this cue word and reward her with a treat when she gets it right” you are focusing on teaching and learning, rewarding success and working in partnership with your dog. The energy of this mindset builds confidence in your dog (and your training skills), deepens your relationship and results in real behavioral change.

See the difference? Even in our human relationships words affect how we perceive situations, hold energy in our bodies and even the outcomes that we get. Raised voices shut down reason, aggressive language shuts down cooperation and blaming language creates defensiveness. Here’s another example of how language affects dog training:

People come to me for training and sometimes say their dog needs training because he is “stubborn.” The characterization of their dog’s behavior as stubborn implies their dog is not doing as asked just to be a jerk. This creates an adversarial stance in their training approach. In fact, dogs don’t do things to be “stubborn.” If your dog isn’t doing as you ask, the most likely reason is that they don’t understand the request. Perhaps they are afraid for some reason or forgot what the cue means. Your dog always wants to please you, they just don’t always know what that should look like in the moment.

If you think your dog is being stubborn, ask yourself what else might be going on and see if you can come up with another reason why your dog might not be doing what you asked.

To be clear, the words themselves matter to the extent that they create energy. Negative words like stubborn, stupid, willful, etc. label the behavior in a way that create negative energy. Using language that invites curiosity and possibility creates positive energy and enhances the learning environment. The language you use around what is happening is what creates positive or negative energy in training (and you choose language based on your mindset).

For example, I use the word cue in reference to the words that signify a behavior. Cues I teach are sit, stay, come, etc. Some trainers use the word “command” to refer to these same things: sit, stay, come, etc. The difference between cue and command – you guessed it! – it’s the energy created by their intent. A cue (or an “ask” which is another way I reference sit, stay, etc.) is an indicator. Me saying “sit” is an indicator that I would like my dog to sit. It’s a request that promises a reward because that is the relationship I’ve created through training so my dog is happy to sit when he hears the cue. A command on the other hand implies force. You will sit because I say so. No questions asked. It’s hierarchical rather than relational.

If my dog doesn’t sit at my cue, I wonder what’s gone wrong and how I can fix it. The responsibility is mine. If a dog doesn’t sit upon command, he’s being insubordinate-stubborn-disobedient. The responsibility has shifted to the dog. Since dogs don’t really care about sitting before crossing the street or sitting while someone enters the house and are only doing it because we’ve asked them to do it, why should the responsibility of success be on their shoulders?

Which words are best to use for your dog? Should you say, “lay down,” or just “down,” to get them to lay down? It doesn’t actually matter (you can use “banana” if you want as long as you teach your dog the corresponding behavior you want them to associate with the word). Dogs aren’t born knowing any human language. They may never even understand the concept of sounds being words. They simply learn to associate a particular sound with a particular behavior. There are several different ways to teach a cue word to your dog. One simple way is to use a treat to lure your dog into the position you want (such as raising the treat up above your dog’s head saying “sit” to get them to sit). Once the dog performs the behavior you want, give them the treat. You will need to continue to hand gesture until your dog learns to associate the word sit with putting their but on the ground. Once that happens you can phase out the gesture and even the treat.

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