Dogs, unfortunately, do not speak English. Even the smartest and most well-trained pup only understands a few dozen words, and most dogs are unable to understand what happens when words are rearranged in different contexts. That being said, it is possible to push your dog up to a 100-word vocabulary, provided you have the patience, time and love to put into the effort. Teaching a dog to associate words with actions or objects can be demanding, but it is exceptionally rewarding in the long term. A smarter dog is just a few training sessions away.
Teaching the First Word
Approach your dog with a calm, confident energy. Focus the dog’s attention on you using a treat or sound.
Guide the dog into the action you want to see accomplished. For example, if you are attempting to teach the “sit” command, you would lean slightly over the dog and guide his head backward with your treat hand. His nose will follow, and almost all dogs will automatically sit down. You can also rub your treat on the tip of a dowel and use the dowel as a guide — this is handy for teaching more complex behaviors like jumping through hoops or running up and down ramps.
Mark the successful completion of the behavior with either a marker word (“yes” or “good”) or a training clicker. Follow the marker immediately with a small treat reward.
Repeat this action until the dog will reliably perform the action. When you can make your dog sit every time you wish to cue the behavior, you may add the word “sit” just as you begin the gesture – this teaches the dog that the word “sit” has meaning in relation to the act he is performing.
Teaching the Next 99
Take a break from your training to give your dog some time to relax. Dogs, like people, can only learn so much in one sitting; it is a good idea to teach only one word per session.
Refocus the dog with a treat or sound when it is time to learn a new word.
Cue the action by guiding the dog into place. If your next word is “down,” for instance, you can slowly draw the treat down toward the ground in front of the dog. His nose will follow, and he will lie down.
Mark the completion of the behavior in the same way you marked the first word.
Repeat the new guiding gesture until the behavior is reproducible. Only add the vocal command when you are sure the dog understands what is being asked of him. When your dog is ready, move on to the next word on your list.
Items You Will Need
- Dog treats (small)
- Training clicker
- Keep your treats small. The dog should be able to snap each treat up in one bite.
- Dogs that are not food motivated are trickier but still respond to a positive stimulus. Try motivating the dog with his favorite toy or brief affection if treats are not enough to focus his attention.
- Try to train the initial stages of any new behavior in silence. Spoken words do not have meaning for dogs until you have shown them what you want them to do.
- Never force your dog into position or use physical force as a deterrent for behaviors. Not only do these actions not help the dog understand your motivations, they often hinder training progress by stressing the dog out and breaking your bond of trust.
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