When you start to have a list of behaviors that extends beyond 10 or 20, your dog’s task of hearing your verbal cue keeps getting harder. Your dog can guess between sit, down, and stay and get it right much of the time, if those are the only tricks he need perform. I’ll even go so far as to say that a lot of competitive obedience commands are predictable (always default to heel on the left and sit when all else fails). The more tricks you train your dog, the more you should bother to be thoughtful about helping your dog to be able to discern which trick you’re cuing. And, when your dog knows how to heel on multiple sides (right/left/front/behind/reverse heel/etc), it’s obviously harder and it’d be smart to train the verbal to be independent of extraneous info (in particular, body language).

2 of my favorite sports encourage full verbal fluency. That means that the dog must perform without the aid of body language or visual signals. So, how can I make things as easy as possible? Which behaviors will I train a separate cue for, and which can be bundled together? I try to train as few cues as necessary. For example, I use a generic cue for sending my dog away to go interact with a prop. I don’t name each item I want my dog to fetch. I have a cue for “Go” which means leave me, “Get it” which means drive to the item and pick it up (& possibly just have fun with it if I don’t say: “Bring it” which means fetch, and “Give” for surrendering the item. I don’t use “Hold”, that’s a requirement until I ask the dog to “Give”. I also don’t use “Stay” (or any variation thereof like “Wait”) because if I said “Sit”, the dog should not break until released (“Ok”). Further, if I say something to my dog, I want the dog to DO something. When you say “Stay” to a dog that is already staying, I think the dog is like, “What? Should I do something different?” So, instead, I praise the dog for being good in carrying on with duration and make sure to always tell the dog when to end the behavior. Speaking of your release cue, that is 1 of THE most important cues that your dog should understand.

Let’s look at directional cues (like turning left/right).  I consider a left spin different from a right spin, so provide a different cue for each. For circling around me, I have a separate cue for counterclockwise and clockwise. There’s another behavior of the dog running to and circling around an object (a cane, a jump wing, or any prop). I use only a single verbal cue for that…a generic send cue, “Go”.

If your a fan of Silvia Trkman and/ other agility greats, many of them train a left and a right cue for this circling of the jump wing. BUT, telling left from right is hard. And, in agility I will use my body language as my primary cue, I keep it simple with 1 verbal cue (either the obstacle name or a send cue to go forward depending on the distance). If I was not athletic and wanted to steer my dog around an agility course from far away, this trick would be worthwhile to train.

Confused? Keep it simple is my rule of thumb. Dog’s native language is body language and they are masters at reading (often adding context cues) your body leans and motions…even your facial expressions. In agility, there are very few things that are worth the bother to train a verbal cue for (well, unless you’ve got running contacts). Instead of spending all the time on left/right turns, you can just use 1 cue for turning away from you (“Switch”), which is a position dependent cue. A cue for going ahead, and a release cue are probably your most important agility cues. However, if you want to train your dog to do a trick independently, regardless of where you are relative to the dog, then you need to bother with verbal cues. Why? Because you can’t cue a dog to do something behind you, or when you’re moving the opposite direction with the same visual the dog gets when sitting in front of you. If you perform tricks in various heel positions, it’s easier to teach the dog to do the trick no matter your body language…and right from the start avoid attaching any unnecessary context cues.


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