Most people aim to have a dog who responds quickly and reliably when cued to do something. It’s not ideal to cue a “sit” and then, 10 minutes later, your dog finally puts their rear on the ground. One of the most important things we, as trainers and dog guardians, can do to facilitate this is make sure that we are very clear in our communication.
In order to be clear, we must follow a simple but often disregarded ‘rule’. One cue–One behavior. If we want a dog to respond quickly and reliably to a cue, that cue must be connected to ONE behavior that can be rewarded (one “right answer”).
It is really common that people try to use one cue to mean multiple behaviors and unfortunately that is not a very efficient training method. Dog jumps on the handler who says, “Down!” handler marks and rewards the dog for having four feet on the floor. Moments later the handler is practicing a lay behavior and I hear the handler say, “down” then mark and reward for the dog’s elbows hitting the floor. So, to this dog, what does “down” really mean? Does it mean 4 on the floor or does it mean elbows on the floor?
Sure, the dog will probably figure out which “down” the handler is talking about using contextual clues (are they jumping up on a guest or just standing around) but relying on the dog to figure out what the handler wants using contextual clues absolutely slows down the response of the dog. Before they can respond, they have to figure out what “down” the handler wants and that takes time. What can end up happening is that the dog responds to cues in a slower manner and may not respond reliably at all.
To increase the likelihood of a dog responding quickly and reliably, I make sure to have unique cues for each and every behavior. This can be challenging at times because coming up with clear cues can be a challenge but it’s important. Years ago I taught Rio to weave between my legs while I walk… the cue I use is “weave.” When I started teaching him the weave poles, I had to come up with some other cue that meant weave through the poles. I never wanted him to hear “weave” while on the agility course and think I wanted him to weave in between my legs–that would be bad. I made sure I used a completely different cue, “Poles” so he would never pause while on the agility field and think which “weave” I wanted, he is not, after all, a mind reader.
This is one of the reasons I do not use the word ‘no’ in my training–it is not specific enough in telling my dogs what behavior I want. It interrupts a behavior but doesn’t either tell the dogs what TO do or tell them what behavior you’d prefer they avoid.
If you want a dog to respond reliably and respond rapidly, it is extremely helpful to follow the one cue for one behavior rule. If your dog never questions “which down,” you will set yourself up to get faster and more reliable behaviors.