What do words mean to your dog?

OELI’m reading Patricia McConnell’s excellent book, The Other End of the Leash. In this book, McConnell frames the challenges of dog training and human-dog relationships in terms of the kinds of communication typically used by primates and canids. She’s not just talking about differences between creatures that rely on vision and creatures that rely on olfaction. She gets into things like grammar, volume, repetition, and pitch of vocalizations.

McConnell points out that even though we know it’s important to consistently use the same words, in the same way, we often don’t. In states of frustration, I’ve told Milo to “lay down, down, get down.” These disco lyrics are not exactly what even a generous person would call good handling. Milo is biddable, smart, and patient and so usually complies with my desires even when I express them poorly. But, what if I had a dog who was slightly less awesome? (The results would not be so good.) And how much better could Milo and I be if I was more consistent and clear? (The results could be fab.u.lous.)

To sharpen my game I made a list of words that Milo knows, along with a description of what I am asking him to do when I use those words.

Here’s Milo’s vocabulary list:

  1. Milo: pay attention to me and approach me
  2. Look: make eye contact with me
  3. Sit: bum on ground, front legs straight
  4. Stand: legs straight, four paws on the ground
  5. Down: bum and elbows on the ground
  6. Stay: don’t move until I give a release or another command
  7. Come: snap your head toward me, approach me quickly, sit in front of me, and let me grab your collar
  8. Wait: pause until I’m gone or I tell you to do something else or I release you.
  9. Drop: let go of what you are holding in your mouth
  10. Easy: do less of whatever you are doing
  11. Let’s go: keep up with me when we are loose leash walking
  12. Hup hup: forge ahead and lean into your leash/collar
  13. Heel: keep your shoulder aligned with my knee, keep your body parallel to the direction I’m facing and sit if I stand still
  14. Back: step backward in a straight line
  15. Around: get into heel position by walking behind me
  16. Get in: Get into heel position by swinging yourself around on my left. This is also a reminder to tuck his butt toward me when we are making a left turn.
  17. Switch: walk behind me and stand or sit quietly on my right side
  18. Crate: get in your crate
  19. Mat: go lay on your nearest bed, or the bed I’m pointing at
  20. Hoover: eat what’s on the floor
  21. Leave it: stop sniffing or eating
  22. Out of it: stop staring
  23. Break: release from a sit, down, stand, or his crate
  24. Yes: functions as a click and is a release
  25. Good: keep doing what you are doing
  26. Nope: try it again
  27. Up: jump onto what I’m pointing at
  28. On: put your front paws on what I’m pointing at
  29. Touch: touch your nose to my open palm
  30. Over: jump over a high jump
  31. Jump: jump over a broad jump
  32. Tunnel: go through an agility tunnel
  33. Kiss: lick my face
  34. Paw: put your paw in my hand
  35. Toys: all the things that he plays with and live in his toy box
  36. Kong: red rubber toy that I fill with food
  37. Ball: any tennis ball sized ball
  38. Clean up your toys:  picks up your toys and puts them in your toy box

He also knows some German words, but I don’t use them regularly because I’m much pickier about precision when I use these commands:

  1. Sitz
  2. Fuss
  3. Platz
  4. Hier

I learned a lot from this list.

First of all, I didn’t realize that Milo knew so many words or so many kinds of words. Some of these words are verbs, some are nouns, some are general terms. I use some of these words to ask him to move or move faster, and some of them to ask him to stop or slow down.

Second, “wait” and “easy” are interestingly vague. Milo does what I want him to do when I use these terms. But I wonder how much of “easy” has to do with my tone of voice. And I wonder how much of “wait” has to do with my body language that blocks him from moving. I need to think about those words.


Even when I’m sloppy, Milo is a good sport and tries to figure out what I want. Thanks buddy!

Finally, this exercise made me wonder what these words mean to Milo. For example, does “sit” mean drop your bum to the ground or does it mean be in a sitting position? In other words, when I ask Milo to sit am I asking for the movement or the final result? This is important because some folks will reinforce a long sit or down by repeating the command every so often–maybe every minute or two. If the command is for a motion, then saying the command when you want the dog to stay still is giving the dog an instruction that it is impossible to follow.

I’m interested in this for two reasons. First, I want to communicate as clearly as I can. Second, I’m curious about what it is like to be Milo, and I’d love to know what these funny sounds we humans make mean to him.

I’d love to know what you think your dog thinks when you give commands.

5 thoughts on “What do words mean to your dog?

  1. I love doing this exercise as, as you found, it gives such information and really helps with clarity. I’ve learned before I train anything to sit down and write it out, define the terms. And if we are struggling with something, I go back and write it out again looking for where our miscommunication is happening in how the dog interprets the terms and how I can help shift that through better clearer training. That said I’m really inconsistent with verbals, body cues I’m significantly better with overall. So if I really really want a behavior on verbal cue, I have to be really on my self to be good about it. Therefore I have many sloppy verbal cues that are really body cues that back it all up and a few select really clear verbals that are consistent with and without body back up.


  2. I think by writing. I write about so many things that it is funny that it took me so long to write out Milo and my lexicon. I think that a body language lexicon might be good to try next, but that will be even trickier!


  3. A very interesting article, though I suspect I am resigned to Dudley’s behaviours now. He’s a two year old Labrador who is actually pretty good – though not so good he leaves me nothing to blog about! I would certainly adopt this with any new puppies though. Thanks


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