Do words Matter?
Is what we call something really important? Does it really matter if we call it a command or a cue, obedience or compliance? What are the fundamental differences? In class, I often tell my students that my dogs don’t have to sit, they get to sit.
So what does that mean?
Webster’s Dictionary defines command as “to direct authoritatively or order.” And when you look at people who give their dogs commands, that really is what they are doing, issuing an order. There is an element of “do this or else” to a command; the threat of an unpleasant consequence for disobedience. The dog must obey.
Trainers who teach dogs commands usually rely on avoidance. The dog “obeys his commands” to avoid an unpleasant consequence, like a leash pop, a poke, or even a dirty look. The dog is working to avoid something unpleasant. That unpleasant consequence can, in the dog’s mind, become associated with the command, the person issuing it, or the location it is being issued. The command itself can become a scary or bad thing.
A cue, on the other hand, is defined as a signal to a performer to begin a specific speech or action. That is all it is, a prompt or a signal that your dog recognizes and associates with the behavior.
Does the Dog Care?
A further linguistic difference is the response from the dog. A dog who receives a command must obey; a dog that understands a cue will comply, or conform, to a request. Why would a dog choose to conform without the threat of unpleasant consequences? Because the consequence of compliance is access to something the dog wants. Rather than learning that disobedience makes bad things happen so it is better to toe the line, dogs learn that compliance and cooperation make wonderful things happen.
When we reward dogs for compliance, we create positive association with the action and with us. Sit is no longer an action the dog has to take to avoid something unpleasant. It becomes something the dog enjoys doing because it makes good things happen. The cue becomes a happy thing. As we continue to work with our dogs, we become associated with those good things. Our dogs begin to enjoy working with us as a team and the relationship grows.
The biggest difference in the words is the way we view our dogs and the way they view us. I prefer my dogs work with me rather than for me. They don’t have to sit, they get to sit.