Improving Your Dog’s Response to Verbal Cues

Many dog owners desire a well-behaved dog who responds to their verbal cues. Nevertheless, there are instances when our dog appears to understand what we’re asking yet doesn’t respond. If you’ve ever found yourself thinking, “My dog knows the word ‘sit’ but is stubborn and won’t always do it,” rest assured that you’re not alone. This can be incredibly frustrating, but there’s more to the situation than what might initially meet the eye.  We’ll explore three reasons your dog might not “know” what you are asking and tips to teach him.


One reason your dog might not respond is because of predictability. If you always ask for a particular behavior in the same context, your dog may start predicting what you will ask, making it seem like he “knows” the word. For instance, if you ask your dog to sit before each meal, he may anticipate your request and sit, making it look like he understands the word.

Hand Signals 

Our dogs might appear to understand our verbal cues. However, in reality, they tend to focus on the hand signals that we still need to properly fade out, especially when presented simultaneously with the verbal cue. For instance, while teaching your dog to sit, you may have initially used a hand signal and said, “sit.” Dogs naturally pay more attention to our body movements than our words. Consequently, if you ask your dog to sit without using the hand signal, he may respond differently than expected. If your dog can already sit with the hand signal, and you want them to respond solely to the verbal cue, the next step is to work on fading the hand signal.

Here’s how:

    1. With your hands in a neutral position, say, “sit.” 
    2. Count “one Mississippi” in your head or take a breath. Doing this step helps ensure you don’t inadvertently move your hand simultaneously while saying “sit,” allowing your dog to focus on the verbal cue rather than unintentional hand signals.
    3. Use your hand signal to ask your dog to sit. 
    4. Mark when your dog sits. 
    5. Grab a treat from your pocket or location that is within arms reach. 
    6. Give your dog the treat.

Lumping together the steps of the sequence listed above will only confuse your dog. Only one step should happen at a time. Clear communication is a huge factor in successful training. Over many repetitions, you will see that your dog begins to move into the seated position as you count to “one Mississippi” or take a breath.

You can see an example of how I make sure to add pauses when introducing Fisher to the verbal marker, “Yip.” This is in place of the clicker.

Sit with focus.
Understanding Generalization

Dogs do not naturally generalize, meaning they may not automatically apply a learned behavior to different situations, environments, or contexts. For example, your dog may consistently sit when asked to do so in your living room but might not respond when asked at the park or even in your backyard. The lack of response often occurs because your dog needs to practice the behavior in different locations or amidst distractions. To help your dog consistently respond to your cue, practice in various environments while gradually increasing the level of distractions.

Achieving Training Success

Practice, patience, and clear communication are essential to your dog’s learning. By embracing these principles, you’ll be able to have your dog respond to your verbal cues, you’ll leave frustration and confusion behind, creating a stronger bond with your companion.

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[…] refers to a dog’s obedience to a specific cue, while engagement relates to the dog’s overall emotional state and willingness to participate […]

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