Following is an excerpt from the book Thoughtful Owners, Great Dogs by James Akenhead.

Establish cues in your dog training to ensure you maximize your dog's understanding.Obedience training is usually thought of as mastering a series of commands that indicate what behavior we want the dog to do, combined with a release cue that tells the dog when he can stop doing what was requested. These commands usually include “Sit,” “Down” and “Come.” These cues enable the dog to work in a structured situation when required.

The Cue and the Action

Remember, any cue you use is just a sound to the dog. It’s not about English, it’s about a specific sound that we and the dog come to associate with a behavior and a result. It doesn’t matter what you use as long as you use it consistently. The dog can learn whatever behavior she can physically perform that you can connect with a specific sound and a pleasant outcome.

When teaching a cue, either verbal or with another signal, our goal is for the dog to complete the action—that is, to sit and maintain that position until she either hears a release cue (such as “Okay” said in an upbeat tone) or until she hears another cue she understands.

The Reinforcer

Reinforcing something means doing something immediately after a behavior that increases the chances the behavior will be repeated. For example, if my dog sits and I give him a bit of food, my dog is more likely to sit when he is around me. If, every time he sits he gets a piece of cheese while no other behavior gets him anything he likes, sitting will become a big deal for the dog. He will likely volunteer to sit all over the place to get cheese.

Primary Reinforcers

Food, treats, water, going to potty, all these are primary reinforcers. That means you don’t have to teach the dog to like them or want them. It’s natural. The reason I use food as a reinforcer is because it’s easy. Dogs like food. The only puzzle is to find out what treat the dog likes best and to use the treat when the dog is likely to be interested or hungry—like not right after a meal of roast beef.

Secondary Reinforcers

Something the dog is taught to like is a secondary reinforcer. The dog is usually taught to like the secondary reinforcer by having it paired (combined) with a primary reinforcer over time. A typical secondary reinforcer could be your voice saying “Good Boy.” It becomes a secondary reinforcer by being combined with something the dog likes.

Again, an easy example is food. If, every time I say “Good Boy” I give the dog a piece of food within a few seconds, eventually my voice begins to be of interest to the dog. After the combination of “Good Boy” accompanied by a treat occurs over and over again, my use of “Good Boy” alone will serve as a reinforcer—something pleasant to the dog. Hence, my voice saying “Good Boy” is likely to encourage the behavior that came immediately before it.

Variable Reinforcement

If I give my dog cheese every time he sits, he is getting continuous reinforcement. If I give my dog cheese four times out of every five times he sits, he is getting intermittent or variable reinforcement. Sometimes he gets reinforced and sometimes he doesn’t. It varies.

Usually, I recommend using continuous reinforcement when teaching a new behavior. Then as the dog gets the behavior down pat, we switch to variable reinforcement. When we do this, we have to keep the dog guessing about when he will or will not get the reinforcer—often, a food treat.

Random Treating

A less technical way to refer to variable reinforcement is random treating. It’s important to give the treat often enough that your dog will think it’s worth it to keep working.

Not letting the dog know when he will or won’t get a treat is also essential with random treating. To make it work, you must look exactly the same when you are going to give a treat as when you are not going to give a treat. If you somehow convey with your posture, how you hold your hands, the look on your face or the absence of a treat bag rattle that no treat is coming, your dog will figure it out and may not perform when you cue him.

Nickel Slot Players

When we use random treating, we want our dogs to be nickel slot machine players. People play nickel slots because they believe they have a high probability of winning. With nickel slots, you can keep playing without a high risk of loss and with a perceived good chance to win. With our dogs, random treating means they win when they get the treat and do not experience unpleasantness when they lose—don’t get reinforced.

Expected Hits

How many hits, rewards or getting the treat must the dog receive to keep him working? Not as many as you may think. I start with a treat for every repetition when I am teaching a new skill. As the dog learns or associates the cue sound and the behavior, I begin to reduce the number of treats.

I do it in an organized way so I can tell if performance suffers. I might start with eight treats in my hand for a 10- repetition practice. I distribute the eight treats over the 10 repetitions in a random manner. If performance stays up, I may move to six or seven treats for 10 repetitions. I may continue this process until the dog can perform 20 repetitions with only one or two treat rewards.

If you are slowly lowering the number of treats and you reach a point where your dog’s performance drops off, be sure you are not telegraphing treat versus no treat. If that is not the problem, up the treats to a frequency that brings his performance back. Then slowly move to reduce the treats again.

Your Part

It’s not just the treat rewards that reinforce the dog’s performance. It is your personal reaction. Do you get excited at the right time? Do you use your voice and body to generate enthusiasm? Do you mange your voice and your body so that they work in your favor?

Everything you do influences your dog’s reaction. Some things are enjoyable for your dog, some things are neutral and others make the dog uncomfortable. You must become a good enough reader of your dog’s body language to know how you are affecting him. You need to be aware that if you touch him he might not be able to focus, and if you get too excited he can’t concentrate. You learn this by paying attention to your dog’s reactions. Finally, when cuing your dog, you can’t telegraph what reward he will get… or not get.

The Rattling Treat Bag

When training your dog, if as you give your dog a cue he hears you reach into your treat bag and rattle around for a treat, he knows what’s coming. Likewise, if you cue him and he hears no rattle of the treat bag, he knows what’s not coming. Even more obvious is if you wear a treat bag when doing formal training and not when out on a walk, the dog definitely knows the difference. This can affect performance.

The game for you is not to give yourself away. Notice how you hold your body. Where are your hands? Are you conveying things to your dog that are not included in your cue? Generate the same enthusiasm and body energy whether you are giving a treat or not. That will affect the dog’s performance. He will be a more consistent nickel slot player.

The Lure

Interesting the dog in following a lure, in this case a treat, is done so that when we use a lure to teach a position the dog will easily understand and follow.

Orienting the dog to a lure is a simple process. For me, it means walking the dog around a room and periodically dropping a treat on the ground for the dog to find. At first, the treats are dropped in front of the dog’s nose or right on top of the dog’s head so she can’t help but notice. As the walk continues, I drop the treats so the dog sees the treat bounce but must search a little to find it. If the dog doesn’t find the treat, I point to it and guide the dog.

This process sets the dog up so she will follow a treat when it is used for a more deliberate activity, such as teaching “Sit” or “Down.”

“Sit” Position

Perhaps the easiest cue to teach is “Sit.” The sound “Sit” usually means the dog puts his rear on the ground and stays there until you release him or give another cue that he understands.

Remember, even the simple “Sit” cue is only a sound to the dog. It only means something when the dog associates it with a particular movement. For this reason, it is not necessary to say the word “Sit” while you are teaching the dog to follow a lure into the sitting position. It is only after the dog will consistently follow the lure that you start adding the “Sit” cue just before you start your luring motion. After a few practice sessions, the dog will begin to associate the cue with the movement into the sit position. At that point, you can fade the lure.

Fading the lure means making it less obvious as you use the verbal cue. Make the lure motion less and less obvious each time you do it… shorten your arm stroke and make the presence of the treat less and less visible. Later, you may use the motion you made with the lure as the basis of a hand signal. Ultimately, you may want your dog to respond to a verbal cue, a hand signal or a combination of both.

The “Sit” cue is relatively easy to teach because the dog can easily be lured into the sit position. Take a delectable treat, hold it just above the dog’s nose and move it toward the dog’s tail. As you move the treat backward, the dog’s rear end naturally goes down as the head follows the movement of the treat. The instant the dog’s rear hits the ground, you say “Good Boy,” let the dog have the treat, and then quickly release the dog using “Okay” accompanied with a quick body shift to the side to get the dog up. This quick sequence gets the dog in position, acknowledges he did it correctly, rewards him and gets him up with a release before he gets up on his own.

“Down” Position

When your dog can sit on cue, the next move is to teach the “Down” cue. We use the “Sit” as the platform for the “Down”… meaning, we start the dog in the sit position and move him to the down position. One definition of “Down” (not used in formal competition) is simply to get the dog into a reclining position with his belly on the ground. The dog can role his hip into a relaxed position as long as he remains reclining.

Our goal is to teach the dog that when he hears the sound “Down,” he puts his body in a reclining position with his belly on the ground. Further, we want to teach the dog that he remains in that position until he hears either his release cue or another cue he understands. (As a reminder, “Stay” is not a necessary cue for this process.)

  • Don’t bother to say the word “Down” when you first begin. Remember, dogs don’t understand English until we teach them the meaning of the sound. In this case, we want to first teach the dog to mechanically move into the down position.
  • When we can get the dog to follow our treat lure into the down position and we are sure the dog will continue to do so, then we start adding the “Down” cue just before the lure motion so the dog can associate the cue and the mechanical motion of going into the down position.

The mechanics of the down are simple. First, get the dog into a sit, either by asking for it with the cue or waiting until the dog sits. Remember, if you ask for the sit, you should acknowledge it with “Good Boy.”

  • Once the dog’s rear end is on the ground, take a treat (I use a meatball-size lump of soft treat material) and put it under the dog’s nose. As soon as the dog takes notice, start moving the treat clump slowly toward the ground. Go slow enough that dog can follow but fast enough that the dog can only sniff and lick.
  • As the dog follows the treat clump toward the ground, reinforce with the sound “Good Girl.” We use “Good Girl” as a reinforcer because the dog has become familiar with the sound as part of learning the “Sit” cue.
  • Once the treat reaches the floor, slowly move it outward along the floor and away from the dog’s nose. Again, go slowly enough that the dogs stays interested. The dog should slowly walk herself into the down position.

If the dog lifts her rear end off the floor as she follows the treat, quickly say the word “No” (as in “that’s not what I want”) in a conversational tone and move the treat away from the dog. Have the dog sit and begin again. Remain calm; if you are frustrated, the dog will pick up on this and become anxious. This will inhibit progress.

  • Continue the process until the dog walks herself into the down position while following the treat. When the dog’s belly touches the floor, say “Good Girl” and be sure the dog is getting the treat… actual bites. Continue treating and saying “Good Girl” for a few seconds, then remove the treat as you say the “Okay” release cue and get the dog up with a quick movement of your body.

If the dog does not follow the treat, you are either moving too fast or your treat is not of sufficient value to the dog to hold her interest. If she has just eaten a big meal or if there are distractions, it would take a very high-value treat to keep the dog’s interest. If this is the case, take note and adjust the time and location of your training.

  • If a dog doesn’t follow your treat as you lower it below her nose and move it slowly away from her, try pushing the treat slowly in and between her front legs instead of pulling it away from her body. As you push the treat in, watch the way the dog hunches her body. Go with the direction she hunches. If the dog’s body slumps to the left or right, use the treat to keep facilitating that movement.

Once the dog has learned the mechanical motion of getting into the down position, add the sound “Down” immediately before your treat lure motion, and you’re on your way. Just remember, as you practice:

  • Cue “Down”
  • Acknowledge “Good Boy”
  • Treat within two seconds
  • Release with “Okay”
  • Get the dog up

Generalizing the Cue

Generalizing a cue means the dog understands that “Sit” means the same thing no matter where or when you give the cue. To achieve that, you’ll need to practice the cue in a variety of situations so he will learn that no matter where he is cued, it always has the same meaning. By doing this, you avoid having to say to your dog trainer, “He always does it at home so I don’t know why he won’t do it here.”

Practice cues in 10-minute sessions. Start in the quietest room in your home. Practice both sits and downs. Move the dog each time you give the cue. The sequence should be: “Sit,” “Good Boy,” treat, “Okay,” move to a different location in the room. Next, you might do a “Down,” “Good Boy,” treat, “Okay,” move to a different location in the room. Next you might choose to do “Sit,” “Good Boy,” “Down,” “Good Boy,” treat, “Okay,” and move to a different location in the room.

After you have worked all around the quiet room, move to a different room and then a different room. Each time you practice, move to a room with more distractions. After you have practiced in all the rooms in your house, try the basement, the garage, the driveway, the yard, the sidewalk, then the local park. Then be creative. The more places you practice with your dog, the better he will understand that the cue always means the same thing, no matter where he is or what else is going on.

For the first 20 to 50 times you practice the cue, be sure to use “Good Boy” followed by the treat. This helps implant the cue in the dog’s mind and it also helps establish your voice saying “Good-Boy” as a secondary reinforcer. After 50 to 100 repetitions with the food treat, you can move to random treats following your “Good Boy.”


How close the dog is to you may determine how well he pays attention. Assuming you are following my suggestions for creating structure and dealing with inappropriate behavior, and assuming you are using positive reinforcement rather than punishment as your preferred training method, you’re likely to find that the closer your dog is to you, the better your control will be—at least in the beginning.

Use this knowledge as you train your dog. At first, teach your dog to do cued positions close to you. Don’t be in a big hurry to see how far away you can get from your dog until he is rock solid on cues. Proof him by staying close, moving around him, even sitting down and standing up to see if he holds the cue. Next, in gradual increments, have adults, kids and other dogs walk past him as he holds the cue.

When he can handle distractions like these, cue the dog and start moving away from him in small increments. Invent distractions, test your dog. As he becomes solid at four feet away, add another foot. Keep testing. When you reach a distance the dog can’t handle, go back to a distance where he is solid and spend some more time before adding more distance.

With this approach, you are in a position to reinforce your dog for good performance rather than constantly having to replace or correct him for moving before the release.

Thoughtful Owners, Great Dogs BookAuthored by: James Akenhead Ed.D.
Photo credit: Courtesy of / rterheerdt

James Akenhead has owned and trained a variety of dogs for more than 45 years. Jim has been the director of an international trainer’s organization with members in 50 states and 30 countries. He is a professional member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, the Association of Canine Professionals and the National K-9 Trainers Association.

Editor’s Note: Interested in reading the full book? You can purchase a copy at the website by clicking on this Thoughtful Owners, Great Dogs link.




  1. Food seems to be the most commonly used reinforcer in order to train a dog effectively. Thanks for posting.

Leave a Comment