Humans like to talk. We have a word for almost everything, and multiple words for some things. We talk to each other, we talk to ourselves, we talk to deities who may or may not hear us, and we talk to animals, who may or may not understand us
With dogs, at least, it’s understandable: Dogs do seem to understand quite a few of our words. (Say “walk” out loud right now and see who comes running.) Some, like the famous Chaser, seem to understand a whole lot of them, and parts of speech to boot.
But even when we get the behaviors we ask for, it’s often unclear whether the dog understands our words the same way we do.
Take, for instance, my favorite method of teaching “drop,” popularized by British trainer Chirag Patel. In a nutshell, he first teaches the dog that the word “drop” predicts that he is going to put chicken on the floor. The dog isn’t holding anything to drop—but he learns quickly to come running when he hears the cue. Later, when an object is added, the dog spits out the item in anticipation of eating the treat. The human gets the behavior he wants, but it’s almost incidental. To the dog, the word may as well mean “come eat this food.”
When you start to look at the behavior a cue actually elicits, you’re bound to find uses for it that have nothing to do with whatever word you’ve attached to it. The way Chirag teaches “drop” is not significantly different from how many trainers teach an emergency recall: classically conditioning some signal to predict that something delicious is appearing in front of the handler, then gradually moving away from the dog and adding distractions.
So do you really need two separate cues for “drop” and “come”? If your dog whips around to look at you when you say his name, do you also need to teach a “watch me” and a “leave it”?
Really, just four well-taught cues will probably take care of 90 percent of your everyday needs:
A cue that means “look at me”: This can be the dog’s name, but you might want to make it another more sparingly used signal since, if you’re like me, you tend to warble your dog’s name all day long without it predicting anything delicious.
This behavior can be used to get your dog’s attention so you can ask for other behaviors, and is incompatible with eating chicken bones off the sidewalk, picking up that pill you just dropped on the bathroom floor, or barking at another dog.
A cue that means “come here”: Also incompatible with lots of ways to get into trouble, and, as previously mentioned, can probably double as “drop.”
A cue that means “wait”: Sit and down both work to get a dog to stop moving, but so does “wait,” and it can be generalized to any position. If the dog also wants to sit or lie down while waiting, in my book that’s his call.
A hand target: This is often referred to as “touch,” but once your dog can touch a hand target, he can also learn to follow it. You can then use the target to guide your dog up, off, over, under, and around things, or to show him where you want him to be in relation to you (say, while walking on leash). If you want to get fancy, you can add verbal cues for the different behaviors and fade out the target—but in many cases there’s no need.
Other cues will undoubtedly evolve in how you use these behaviors—for instance, if you always ask your dog to wait just before you open a door or reach a curb, and reinforce him for doing so, those actions will become additional cues to wait.
But more words, with dogs, don’t always lead to either more behaviors or more understanding.