Dog training

The language of dog training and why it matters

By Joan Hunter Mayer

Have you ever wondered if the words we use are important when discussing the training of our canine companions? Do terms that reflect a positive and supportive attitude have physical, mental and emotional effects on us and our relationships with our pets? Conversely, what about an authoritarian mindset where we have to tell our dogs what to do and when to do it? You can perhaps see how, from this perspective, if a dog isn’t listening, we’re likely to get upset and frustrated.

Now, let’s look at some specific examples where having more of a teaching, coaching, and cheerleading attitude in your training approach – and your language – can get you into the “We can do it!” mindset and help you achieve your goals.

Teach life skills or demand obedience?

According to the Oxford dictionary and many other dictionaries, the definition of “obedience” is “obeying an order, request or law or submitting to the authority of another”. Looking at this definition more closely, the focus is on the person/animal being told what to do.

Humane and forceless dog training requires a different understanding. Instead of having to tell our dogs what to do, we can teach them “life skills” so they learn to make good choices on their own. It’s about having a more “pawsitive” approach. This path emphasizes teamwork and encourages curious dogs to enjoy offering “good” behaviors.

Is it motivation or corruption?

Another example to illustrate the importance of carefully choosing our training terminology is to understand the difference between motivation and corruption. Like comedy, dog training is all about timing! The difference between motivation and corruption comes down to timing.

A scenario in our human world would be to be arrested by a law enforcement officer. Let’s say you’re driving down the freeway and you get pulled over. The peace officer says he’s going to issue you a speeding ticket. You interrupt their action and say, “Hey, if I give you this crispy hundred dollar bill, will you forget you’ve seen me before?” This exchange would be a bribe, because you provide something that you hope that person wants (bribe) before they issue the quote (the behavior).

As an example of dog training, this would be like offering your dog a treat before he performs the behavior you are asking for. “Here is a treat. Do you want to “sit down” now? In both examples, whether it’s a behavior you want (sitting) or don’t want (getting a ticket), you are providing something the other wants, before they does not offer behavior or act.

Now, using the same freeway scenario, let’s look at motivation. You get arrested; the peace officer says he will issue you a ticket for exceeding the speed limit. You explain that you listened to an engaging podcast about animal behavior and must have gotten distracted and unaware of your offense. Then you apologize and admit your wrongdoing. In turn, they appreciate your honesty and let you know that they’re going to let you go with a warning this time, but be aware in the future. You thank them profusely and continue on your merry way. You then make a nice donation to the local law enforcement fund in that officer’s name, drop off some homemade croissants at the station, and make sure you follow the speed limit in the future. As an example of dog training, your dog sits down and you treat him for doing it, once the behavior has been offered to him.

Remember that behaviors are driven – or driven – by consequence, not demand. If you give the learner what they want before the behavior is offered, then what would motivate them to offer future behaviors?

The opposite of stressed is relaxed (not tired)

Since we are talking about anxiety-provoking events, let’s talk about stress and dogs. There are training plans that encourage dog parents to make their dogs nice and tired, to help reduce stress. And that brings us to the next set of terms that probably deserves some clarification. There is a difference in meaning between being physically exhausted and being genuinely calm, relaxed and at ease in an environment or situation.

I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all been tired…and we’ve all been stressed and uncomfortable. In our own lives, we may notice that being physically exhausted does not mean being less stressed. If we’re stressed about something, but also tired, then we’re just stressed and tired (arguably an even worse feeling).

Similarly, pet owners who want to help an animal that is suffering from fear, anxiety, or stress will want to 1) understand their dog’s stressors and 2) deal with them. Then their curious dogs can feel truly relaxed and stress-free. Getting to the root of the problem may require a visit to your dog’s veterinarian for a medical evaluation and/or medication, as well as the assistance of a trained non-strength canine behavior consultant to help your dog develop a positive conditioned response to certain situations.

Why our words matter

It is important for pet sitters to learn to read canine body language – an extremely valuable skill. But let’s not forget to consider our own language as well. It’s time to get rid of outdated approaches that use outdated techniques and adopt a more engaging, encouraging and motivating tone and mindset. It’s good for us and for our curious canines.


The Inquisitive Canine was founded by Santa Barbara canine behavior consultant and certified professional dog trainer Joan Hunter Mayer. Joan and her team are dedicated to providing humane, peaceful and practical solutions that work for the challenges that dogs and their humans face in everyday life. Let’s bark with the dogs, encourage the humans and have fun!