The Sesquipedalian Bouvier

I wrote this in 1986 (after 5 years partnership with Chelsea) about my ideas about communicating with your dog by means of intentional signals or cues with meanings that you taught to the dog. Now this barely touches on the huge area of unintentional signals that you send whose meaning the dog has learned on his own or that have some intrinsic meaning to the dog. This article was written for and published in "The Working Bouvier, 1986" which was the trial catalog for the 1986 North American Bouvier working Championships. It was later published in Dog Sports Magazine. Still later it was translated into French by Michel Hasbrouck and published in France.

The Sesquipedalian Bouvier


by Pam Green, © 1986

This article deal with your dog's vocabulary : those spoken words, physical gestures and other signals that you use to communicate with him. Although most dogs can be taught to understand and respond to an impressively large vocabulary, most owners teach their dogs only a very limited vocabulary. Both the household companion dog and the working dog benefit from a rich vocabulary. How can your dog possibly do what you want if he does not know what you want? How can he know unless you tell him? This becomes especially important when the two of you have to deal with a new situation that you have not trained for specifically. With a sufficiently rich vocabulary, you stand a fair chance to coach your dog through new situations by giving step-by-step instructions leading to a crude but adequate result. Of course, the dog has to be willing and want to cooperate with you, and that's another problem altogether, but good vocabulary training tends to improve the dog's overall attentiveness and willingness.

Throughout this article, I will be illustrating various points with examples from the vocabulary of my Bouvier bitch Chelsea de Caelichyth, TT, HIC, AD, VB, CDX, TD, CanTD, STD-s. Chelsea's vocabulary covers a vide range of activities including obedience, tracking, personal protection, herding, agility, air scent search, water rescue, carting and household, traveling and playtime activities.



A signal is any stimulus that can be transmitted by the handler and perceived by the senses of the dog. An ideal signal would be one with all the following qualities:

The possible modes of signal are sound, sight, touch and scent. Each mode has some of the qualities of an ideal signal mode but lacks other qualities. A mode appropriate for one type of situation may be inappropriate for another.


The dog's sense of hearing is the sense most usually addressed by the handler. The handler's voice is the most usual means of transmission. Use of the voice hae two main advantages:

Over long distances and under adverse wind conditions, the voice may not carry far enough to reach the dog. Handlers of herding dogs deal with this problem by teaching a complicated code of whistle commands. Alternatively, one might attach a lightweight radio receiver onto the dog's collar and transmit voice signals by walkie-talkie; this seems to me to be worth trying for search dog handlers as well as herding dog handlers.

In selecting words to be used as voice signals, the handler's primary concerns are to choose words whose meaning he can easily remember and to choose words that the dog can readily distinguished between.

For the principal emergency commands, "COME" immediately to the handler; lie "DOWN" instantly; "STOP BITING" instantly, it is essential that the word be one which can easily be made to sound authoritative and that it be one which can be shouted as as to carry as far as possible. The "oh" and "ow" sounds of "no". and "down" have these qualities.

For all voice signals it is desirable that the word chosen be one which easily lends itself to being pronounced in an emotionally appropriate tone of voice. For instance, I have found that as a "slow your pace" command for use in herding, carting and off-lead tracking, the word "SLOW", when pronounced "slooow" in a low soothing tone, easily produces the desired response. In contrast, I originally tried, in herding, to use "EASY" as a slowing command but found that if I was at all excited, it would come out as a somewhat high-pitched "eee-see" and these high "eee" sounds naturally excited Chelsea and thus had an effect opposite to the one I wanted. In personal protection, in a master-defense situation (ie, Baddie assaults handler) that same high pitched "eeek" (for me, a natural scream of distress) had the very desirable effect of speeding up and invigorating my dog's coming to my rescue. In herding, my speed up command is "VITE", which is pronounced "veeet" and is French for "fast" (obviously the English word "fast" would be an unwise choice for a dog that already understands "FASS !" to mean "bite him!"). Again, the "ee" sound excites a faster and more rigorous response.

(An update note : for Bones, for his speed up command I used "Quick, quick !" pronounced in a very staccato and high pitched manner.)

The principal drawback of using words as signals is that it is all too easy to forget that the dog will understand only that meaning you have taught him, not the dictionary meaning. The dog cannot distinguish two different words that sound alike, nor can he under~stand that the same word can have several different meanings. He can, however, understand that two different words have the came meaning.


The dog's sense of vision is less often addressed by handlers. The handler's hand and arm are the most ususual means of deliberate transmission but movement of any part of the body can be used deliberately or unintentionally. Visually-addresseded signals have four important advantage:

For this fourth reason, retriever trial handlers rely on arm signals for advanced dogs to do "blind" (dog did not see bird fall) retrieves. The second reason applies particularly to agility and obstacle training. On a completely new and different obstacle, I have found it easily to explain to Chelsea how I want her to deal with it by the use of hand and arm gesture than by the use of voice commands. Not all gestures are self-explanatory. Directional gestures are usually self-explanatory to a degree but others, such as the usual UD heel, sit, stand and down signals, are not self-explanatory.

In selecting gestures to be used easily signals, the criteria are:

Visually addressed signals are not suitable for emergency commands, other than as a supplement to voice signal, as the dog may not be looking in the right direction.

The principal disadvantage to hand signals is that the dog may not see them. Unlike the dog's hearing, which is virtually omnidirectional, the dog's range of vision is concentrated towards the front of him, with limited range to the sides and up and down. So, if the dog is inadvertently or intentionally looking in a direction away from the handler, the signal will not be received and thus he cannot respond.

In some lines of work it is not even considered desirable that the dog look towards the handler. In herding, breeds that work a lot with the "strong-eye" (stalking behavior with the dog staring intently at the stock), such as the Border Collie and Kelpie, cannot and should not be worked with hand signals. "Loose-eye" breeds such as the Bouvier, Tervuren and Australian Shepherd, can benefit from some use of hand signals as supplementary signals.


The dog's tactile senses are rarely addressed by the handler, except to convey praise and rebuke, to assert the handler's social dominance, to place the dog into position during basic training, or to convey the meaning of some other command (usually a voice command).

The handler's hand is the usual means of transmission, although other parts of the body can be used. The advantages of touch signals are:

The chief disadvantage is that it is difficult to transmissionsmit a touch signal further than arm's length. Long line, throw chain, and shock collar can be used to extend the range but there are items the handler often does not have on his pereon continually ready to use.

The use of touch signals as a command for the advanced dog is rare. An article in Dog Sports some time ago described one police officer's use of an inconspicuous touch signal to cue him dog to be on red alert, ready to bite the suspect instantly if he moved while being interviewed or frisked. I've read that military sentry doge were sometimes trained to reduce their intruder-announcing bark to a very low growl. The human sentry sharing the post would leave one hand resting lightly on the dog's throat to feel, rather than hear, this growl. From the dog's point of view the light touch on his throat would be a signal. In the AKC Novice and Utility Stand for Examination exercise, many handlers use a light touch on the dog's flank as a command to stand. Similarly, one could use a fingertip touch on top of the croup for a sit command and fingertip touch between the shoulder blades as a down command. Possibly there are police or military situations in which this could be desirable. In AKC Open and Utility, one occasionally sees the handler using a touch or faint squeeze on the dog's ear as an illicit reminder that the retrieving exercise about to begin had better be done right. A retriever field trial trainer told me of a similar use of a light toe touch or toe squeeze for dogs force-broken to retrieve by a toe-web pinch method.

The most noteworthy and necessary systematic use of touch signals is for carting, when the handler rides in the cart and uses reins attached to the dog's collar for steering. While one can use voice commands to initiate the turns right. and left., the reins are essential if one is to give precision steering directions such as telling the dog exactly how tight the diameter of the turn is to be and exactly when to straighten out again or turn the other way. Such precision steering is needed for driving among closely spaced obstacles or in traffic but would not be needed for sled racing on the wide open treeless tundra.

(Note : reins attached to a head halter work even better than reins attached to a neck collar. I invented a type of halter for this purpose, basically an adaptation of a horse halter, but I did not realize how useful the concept could be in a more general training use.)

The most frequent unintentional use of touch signals is that of the tracking handler when handling the dog on a track the location of which is known to the handler. Thus in advancing from self-laid to flagged tracks or blind. tracks, the handler often discovers that to some extent he has been inadvertently steering the dog, and that now he and the dog must both learn to rely on the dog's nose and let the dog use the line to steer the handler !


The dog's highly sensitive sense of smell is virtually never addressed by the handler, undoubtedly because the handler has no natural means of transmitting scent signals. What a pity we don't have half a dozen different scent emitting glands, each under very precise control !

As it is about the only use of scent as a signal that I've heard of is the use of spray-on accents to help a blind dog orient himself to obstacles in the home. I suppose a clever motion picture dog trainer might find occasion to use scent to mark objects the dog is to do something with or to mark locations on the set. And of course the UD dog handler can construct all sorts of amusing tricks based on the scent discrimination premise. Linda Franklin, for example, claims "my dog knows the difference between a $20 bill and a $1 bill" , placing her own $20 bill down near a $1 bill placed by the other person.



In the Conventional method, the trainer first gives the signal then does something to cause the dog to make the desired response, then praises the dog for the response by giving pats, tidbits, etc, The method used to cause the dog to respond may be either inducive or compulsive. To take the simplest example: the trainer says "sit" and then either physically compels the dog to sit by pushing down on his rump or else psychologically induces the dog to sit by moving a tidbit or toy over the dog's head until the dog look upward enough that he sits down to make himself more comfortable.
(Note : my use of the word "inducive" in this article is somewhat different from how other writers have used it. I was not really familiar with behaviorist literature (though I'd had some exposure years earlier in college) at that time so I used the best word I could come up with to mean getting the dog to do it without any physical guidance or manipulation. Karen Pryor's seminal classic "Don't Shoot the Dog !" had been published in hardback in 1984 but did not come out in paperback until Oct 1985, so I had not seen it or heard of it prior to writing this piece.
Also please understand that by "compulsion" I meant physical manipulation or guidance. It need not be harsh, and indeed with puppies should not be harsh. A leash or your hands can be used just enough to guide the puppy or dog into doing what you want so he can be praised for doing it. I've seen the best French Ring trainers use compulsion in this sense of guidance to manufacture a response which can be rewarded. )

The principal limitation of this method is that the trainer may not always be able to figure out a way to induce or compel the desired response. If overly harsh or frightening methods are used to make the response happen, the dog, especially if a puppy, can develop a fearful attitude or, if he is very strong temperamented, a defiant attitude towards that command or towards training generally. Where various devices such as leashes are used to compel the response, it may or may not be difficult to phase out the device. The conventional method is more suited to teaching signals of command than it is to teaching signals of permission, invitation and information. However, some very unnatural responses, that is, behaviors the dog would rarely or never do spontaneously, can be taught by the Conventional method. Such behaviors cannot be taught by the Word Associational method.

(Update note 1 : Overly harsh methods can also lead to biting as self-defensive aggression.
(Update note 2 : at this time I was not familiar with the behaviorist technique of "Shaping", so I did not realize how powerfully shaping with positive reinforcement could be used to create behaviors that are very far from anything a dog would ever do spontaneously.)


(The only place where I've seen this method described and advocated is in Search Dog Training by Sandy Bryson. She advocated that much of the dog's vocabulary can be taught by this method. The basic idea is Bryson's; the commentary below is mine.)

In the Word Association method the trainer must first carefully observe the dog and wait until the dog has begun the desired behavior or is clearly about to begin the desired behavior. At this moment the trainer quickly gives the signal and then, as the dog continues or complete the response, the trainer praises the dog by giving petting, tidbits, etc.

To take a simple example, one of the few signals that most trainers teach by the Word Association method is the invitation to defecate. To teach the dog the word to be associated with the invitation to defecate, the trainer first chosen a time when the puppy is likely to need to poop very soon (such as after a meal), takes the puppy outdoors (preferably to a poopy-smelling place) and observes him carefully until he begins to hunch into that unmistakable pooping posture. The trainer then proclaims in a warm, encouraging tone, "chocolates" or "dump time" or, possibly, a word that differs from "sit" only by the addition of one letter (I don't recommend this particular word if you have any tendency to use it as an involuntary exclamation).

Please notice that you could teach the dog to defecate on command by use of the Conventional method by using a suppository (a vaseline lubricated Q-tip) to compel or induce defecation but nobody does this except as a last resort. Why ? Because it's so much easier and more pleasant to do it by the Word Association method. Easier and more pleasant for both the dog and trainer.

Bryson seems to me to be advocating that most signals can be taught by word association and that it will be easier and more pleasant for the dog to do so.

The principal abilities the trainer needs to use the Word Association method are sufficient prior experience with dogs and sufficient observational talent or skill so that the trainer can predict what the dog is about to do next. The trainer's eye sees the whole picture of what the dog is doing now, and the right side of the trainer's brain (visual thought) instantly predicts what the dog will do next. This is partly an innate talent, for some people have far more capability for learning this sort of thing than others. It is partly a matter of making oneself watch extremely attentively. And finally, it is partly a matter of prior experience. One cannot hope for much success with this method until one has raised at least one dog. Because the predictive picture for most ensuing behaviors is one which is difficult or impossible to describe in words, it is very difficult for a skilled, experienced person to teach a novice. And Bouviers are not one of the easier breeds of dog to "read" visually. The shaggy face and absent tail removes a lot of valuable information from the trainer's view and if the ears are cropped, the ear language is also 90 percent obscured. So, I cannot promise you that the Word Association method will be easy for you to practice Whatever your present skills of observation and prediction, you can certainly improve by diligent effort and this will benefit your entire range of training skills.

The chief advantage of the Word Association method is that it can and should preserve and enhance the dog's willingness to obey. Because you wait to give the command until the dog has already chosen to do the desired action, the dog will perceive the action as something he is completely willing to do. You are not exercising any physical compulsion that might arouse fright or resistance. You are not using an inducement that might easily degenerate into a bribe, without which the dog will not perform.

I must add here that in Bryson's approach, one begins with a puppy and during the first few months one concentrates on those words and signals that ask the pup to do something enjoyable (play a game, come to be petted, etc.) or at least unobjectionable (sit, lie down, etc.). Later, after the pup thoroughly understands the signals, the day may, of course, come when the adolescent or adult dog plays deaf or tells you to "take your signal and shove it !". At his point an instant application of correction and compulsion is quite in order and lets him know that you have not abdicated pack leadership.

Bryson advocates that you teach the pup a word for every thing and every activity that he enjoys. For example, you teach him the names of his favorite toys. You teach him the name of games like "fetch", "tug" or "search" (hide and seek game). Now obviously the result is going to be that the pup will develop a general attitude that whenever you address him with a new word, that word almost certainly has a pleasant meaning if only he can figure it out. So he immediately tries to figure it out He has learned to want to understand you He has learned to enjoy learning.

(Note : this is the method and philosophy that I used in raising Bones and that in a simpler and less well thought-out form I had used on my first puppy Keya. Keya died at 9 months of an anesthesia-induced liver failure. Bones went on to a fabulous career in various forms of working trials.)

Initially, you use the Word Association method for those actions that the pup performs often and completely spontaneously, such as lying down or coming to you. Later, you begin to set the stage so that certain actions will be provoked or induced. For example, you bounce a ball or shake a rag, hoping that he will naturally respond by chasing and grabbing so that you can slip in the appropriate words.

The more stimulation you need to provide to cause him to begin the desired action, the harder it gets to say whether you are using the Word Association method or the Inducive Conventional method. Technically, the difference is in whether you say the word just before or just after the dog decides to do the given action. Since you cannot read his mind, you'll never really know. It really doesn't matter, since in either case you are getting the dog to learn that the word or signal means that particular action and you are getting him to enjoy that association. In many cases both the stimulation and the dog's decision to act are repeated or are continuous anyway. For instance, in Protection, when the Bad Guy is agitating and you are saying "watch him !" and "good, watch", you are probably using both Word Association and Inducive Conventional; then, when you see the dog is about to land a bite and you quickly say "fass !". or "kill !" (or whatever), you are using Word Association. If you told your dog to "watch" an innocuously behaving person, who a moment later started agitating, you would be using Inducive Conventional. By the time you get to this level you won't need to put labels on everything in order to know what you need to do. You will know enough about how your dog learns to be able to go out and do it and your dog will want to understand you anyway.

The Word Association method has the limitation that it is not suitable for actions that are unnatural or unusual for the dog. For example, to teach that "Tub" means "get into the bathtub", you will have to use either the Compulsive Conventional method of saying the word and lifting him into the tub, or the Inducive Conventional method of saying the word and then holding a chunk of food or a favorite toy so that he has to step into the tub to reach it. Similarly, much obstacle agility training can best be done by physically manipulating the dog through the obstacle. "Stay" requires some compulsion, since it really means "stay still, even though you want to move".

(Update note : at the time I wrote this I didn't know much about uses of "lures" or "targets" to lead a dog through, under, over obstacles. If you using luring or targeting, you may very well not need to use any or much leash guidance for agility work.)

The Word Association method can, however, be used for many actions that could never be taught by compulsion and would be difficult to teach by induction. For example, when I see my Chelsea happily wagging her tail, I say "Wag" or "Wagga-butz" I am conditioning her both to wag and to feel happy when I say these words. I expect that someday I can use these words to reassure her in an uncomfortable or frightening situation, such as our first airplane ride or boat trip, and I hope that a few "wagga"s before entering the AKC Obedience ring might improve our score (certainly can't make it worse).

(Note : at this time I had not seen any of the behaviorist literature on conditioning emotions, though of course the name Pavlov did ring a bell. But I was aware, as every really sucessful trainer-handler must be aware, that the dog's emotional state is always relevant to whatever overt behavior you are trying to get him to perform or to abstain from doing.
By the way, on Chelsea's first airplane ride she flew as a Disability Assistance dog and she was far too busy trying to con the flight attendants out of packets of peanuts to have any attention to spare for noticing the strange sensations of takeoff and so on.)

The Word Association method does not fit within the limits of a separate training period., such as a half hour twice a day. Rather, it is something that goes on whenever the opportunity arises, whenever you and your dog are together. This is actually a great advantage, since it makes obedience and responsiveness a way of life, rather than something to do only at special times and places, or when wearing a special collar, or when the handler is in a special mood. I firmly believe that the primary value of training is for daily life, not Just for competitions. Therefore, this aspect seems to me to be an advantage of the method.

(Note : I now believe in the value of "training as a way of life" even more strongly. I have not done much competition in the past 5 years, but I still interweave training into daily life. "Life is every day; competition is the occasional weekend."


Chaining means using one or more old signals which the dog already understands to establish the meaning of a new signal. The trainer first gives the new signal, and then gives the old signal, whereupon the dog obeys and receives praise by getting pats, tidbits, etc. After a number of repetitions the trainer begins to pause slightly between the new signal and the old signal. Sooner or later the dog will begin to respond to the new signal without waiting for the old one. At this point, extraordinary praise lets the dog know he has solved the problem. Sooner or later the old signal is not needed.

(Note : here, again, I was not familiar with the behaviorist literature and the meaning of "chaining" in behaviorist terms. I had to come up with a word for the concept of using one or more known signals to teach the meaning of a new signal. A behaviorist would describe all of this in terms of using an already well Conditioned Stimulus to give meaning to an Unconditioned Stimulus.)

The most usual example of chaining is using an already understood voice command to teach a new hand signal. Similarly, chaining can be used to teach an imported dog the English language equivalents of the commands he already knows in his native language. This is prudent when the handler's fluency in the dog's native language is insufficient for emergency use. Of course, some English speaking handlers choose to teach their American born and trained dogs to respond to commands in a foreign language, such as German. This may be done to impress the judge at competitions or to confirm the dog's responsiveness to members of the handler's own family. I once experimented with teaching Chelsea all her Novice level commands in French with the thought of using the French commands in a VB test. I chained the French off of the English and hand signals. After only three lessons she was doing reasonably well but not quite enough to be ring-ready for the VB.

Where one's doggie household consists of two or more dogs, it may be desirable to first teach all the dogs a common primary vocabulary of basic commands and then later teach each individual his own secondary vocabulary of synonyms. This allows the handler to exercise both pack control and individual control. For example if all the dogs know "down" to mean "lie down", and if dog Able knows that "platz" also means "down" and if dog Baker knows that '"couchez" also means "down", then the handler can drop whichever dog he pleases without affecting the other dog or the handler can drop both dogs simultaneously. Herding dogs intended to be worked as a brace are usually given individual vocabularies, but not usually given a common vocabulary. In brace herding it is often desired to send the two dogs in opposite directions or to move one dog while keeping the other still. In ordinary daily life, it seems to me it would be ideal to be able to drop or recall each dog individually. Individualized retrieve commands would be useful if you want to rely on retrieve games as an important means of exercise or entertainment.

Combination chaining can be used to teach completely new commands whenever some combination of two or more old signals can be used to approximate the meaning of the new signal. For example, when I taught Chelsea the "crawl" command, I used word and touch signals for "down" and "come" to explain it. By, in effect, asking her to both down and come simultaneously, I gave her a problem that could only be solved by crawling. Later, I taught her a hand signal for crawl as well by chaining it from the voice signal.

Differentiation chaining can be used to first establish that a new command has a similar meaning to an old one; then the new command can be modified and clarified to mean what you want it to mean. For example, long after Chelsea knew that "down" meant "drop instantly and await further instruction", I used chaining from "down" to introduce "rug". Then, by relaxing my aforementioned enforcement of "rug" to allow her to get by with a slower drop and a less precise stay, I developed "rug" to mean an informal down, meaning "find yourself a comfortable spot and lie down and relax; you can shift around a bit as long as you stay more or less down". "Rug" is used primarily to remove her shaggy, opaque body from the line of eight from me eye to the TV set. It is also a "relax and rest" invitation.


Many different types of message content are possible and useful : command, release, permission, invitation, inquiry, praise, rebuke and simply labeling (naming) things and activities. Too many handlers think of command, praise and rebuke as the only types of messages worth sending, but other types are worth developing as well.


An obedience command is the purest form of command. It calls upon the dog to perform a very strict, defined act with no variations, modifications or decision making (initiative) by the dog. "Come", "down", "heel", "fetch", and "over" (jump) are obedience commands.

Working commands, however, are sometimes less strict than obedience commands. Often, it is desirable or even essential that the dog use considerable decision making and initiative in carrying out the command. Some working commands simply initiate the work and tell the dog what goal he is to accomplish. Examples are "begin tracking" for a good tracking dog and "outrun" (gather the sheep and bring them to me; the outrun command usually specifies whether the dog is to go clockwise or counter-clockwise to go around to the far side of the stock) for a good naturally wide running herding dog. Some working commands are used to modify the way the dog is doing the task, such as "slow" for a tracking dog who is moving uncomfortably fast for his handler, and "wide" (or "get out") for a herding dog who is outrunning too close to the "flight circle" (flight zone) of the sheep. Some commands advise the dog how to deal with a particular problem that has arisen, either to deal with it on his own or to coordinate his efforts with those of the handler. A command to halt at a barbed wire fence and then crawl under the bottom wire while the handler pulls the wire up higher would handle a situation that night arise in TDX training, search and rescue, herding, or even on an ordinary walk in the country with one's pet dog. Some working commands terminate the task, such as "that'll do" for a herding dog. These termination commands may be very unwelcome since many dogs are not very obedient about quitting work.

Some working commands are every bit as strict as the strictest obedience command. Examples of strict commands are "down" or "stand" ("whoa") for the herding dog, and "out" ("release the bite") for the protection dog.

Some working commands carry a sort of built-in permission to disobey if the Job requires it, such as "forward" for a guide dog, who must delay carrying out the command until the way is clear.

So, how do you teach the dog the difference between the strict command and the non-strict one? Teaching a dog to obey non-strictly, with his own modifications, is actually pretty easy because it's what he is naturally inclined to do. Most working tasks are similar in nature to one or more forms of biologically natural dog behavior, usually some form of hunting behavior, so the dog's genes are encouraging him to think for himself. Teaching him to obey strictly is more difficult, which is why AKC Obedience scores in the 170 to 175 range so far outnumber those in the 195 to 200 range. To get precise performance you have to keep letting the dog know that sloppy approximations are not praise worthy and even bring discomfort. To get non-strict responses, just relax and let nature take its course.


When you give a command, some specified response by the dog is mandatory. When you give a release, permission or invitation, no particular response is required.

A release is a signal that it is OK to stop doing something previously commanded, such as "stay", and OK to begin doing whatever the dog wishes to do. The usual word used is "OK", which is a good choice in that it lends itself to being said in a happy tone, and is a poor choice in that one often tends to say it unconsciously during a conversation with another person, such am an Obedience Judge! A phrase such as "at ease" might be better. Although "do whatever you please" seems like a very abstract concept and thus one that would be hard for a dog to understand, most people seems to have no trouble getting this concept across to their dog.

A permission is a signal that it is OK for the dog to do some particular activity that the dog already wants to do. Usually there is some external stimulus, possibly provided by the handler, which causes the dog to be thinking of wanting to do this particular activity.

For example, for most protection dogs, the "bite him" command is a permission rather than a true command. While the handler might be very unhappy if the dog did not respond by biting, he has no way to force him to bite. The dog's desire to bite must precede the signal being given. Of course, the experience of biting is so pleasurable for the dog that even the commands "watch him" and "bite him" instantly awake the desire to bite, even when there hae been no agitation preceding the bite signal. At this point, from the handler's point of view, the bite permission has strengthened into a reliable command, though from the dog's point of view it is a permission that he would never decline to accept.

(Note : when I say that biting is highly pleasurable for the dog, I really have in mind the dog who has a natural aptitude for doing protection work. A dog who did not find this activity highly enjoyable is not worth training for this activity. The same is true for tracking and herding : the dog has to have both the natural desire and the natural ability to do the work in some form, and the trainer then shapes the form closer to the form the trainer wants.)

Similarly, for some tracking dogs, the "begin tracking" command is a permission as the desire to track awakens the moment the flag or the harness comes into view. For most herding dogs, the "outrun" command is a permission as the desire to go out to the stock and bring them towards the handler bursts aflame at the sight or scent of sheep.

What is a permission to one dog may be a command to another. For example, to Chelsea the signal "Car", meaning "get into the car", is a permission most ecstatically to be obeyed as she adores going for ride. Her brother Smokey, however, is indifferent to car rides so "car" is a command to him, though not an unwelcome one.

An invitation is similar to a permission except that the handler has no reason to know that the dog necessarily wants to do that activity now. An invitation signals the dog that if he wants to do a particular activity, he may do so now. The defecation signal is usually an invitation but is introduced as a permission when the handler is sure the dog needs to respond. The handler doesn't much care whether or not the dog poops right now, just so long as he doesn't do it later at an inconvenient time, such as in the middle of competition or in the middle of a motel room. Since an invitation is a signal to do something the dog considers pleasant, the usual response will be that the dog does it. However, what really distinguishes an invitation from a command ie that it would be OK with the handler for the dog to decline the opportunity.

By way of example, some of Chelsea's favorite invitation include "Car", "hey guys, it's run time" (it's time for our whole pack of 5 to go for out 2 mile morning run), "Pills" (come and get her heartworm pill wrapped in cheese), "Wanna help me feed the horse?" (at night she carries my flashlight, at heel, to light my way), "Let's go get the eggs" (she carries my basket), "Water, go swim?" (she can refresh herself in available body of water when going with me and the horse on long rides in hot weather), "Water, drink?" (esspecially useful when the opportunity to drink is brief, and before tracking tests), "Grabbit!" (leap up to grab a tug toy, then play tug), "Bedtime" (time for both of us go retire to my bed) and "Chelly, Chelly, bring your belly" (I've got a snack for her). Some of these are spoken in a tone of enthusiasm and others in a tone of inquiry (key words are emphasized).

Release, permission , and invitation are very closely allied. Indeed, it is often difficult to distinguish one from the other. The dog can tell, but maybe the handler cannot. It doesn't matter. Mostly these are taught by Word Association or by Inducive Conventional methods. Many permissions and invitations soon grow to become fully effective commands, obeyed with great reliability, perhaps with greater reliability, than some other signals which originated as commands.


Signals of praise or encouragement are given while the dog is engaged in or has just completed a desirable behavior, either spontaneously or in response to the handler's command. The purpose is to convey the handler's approval, to inform the dog that he made the right choice and to motivate the dog to perform this behavior more readily in the future.

Part of the meaning of such signals derives from the dog's natural reaction to the handler's tone of voice (warm, happy, enthused or perhaps even a bit manic) and the handler's body language. However, the meaning of such signals and their power to motivate the dog can be greatly enhanced by association with inherently pleasant events, such as physical caress, a moment's play with a favorite toy, or a tidbit. Even a totally meaningless signal such as a whistle can be transformed into a powerful praise signal by such a learned association. Once the association is well formed, the primary event (caress, play, food, etc) need be given less and less frequently, on a random schedule (unpredictable to the dog), until it is finally given rather rarely. Notice that at this point it no longer matters whether or not the rules of competition or the practical situation allow the giving of the primary pleasant event; the praise signal alone is fully effective.

Signals of rebuke/discouragement are given while the dog is engaged in or has just completed an undesirable behavior, either spontaneously or as a disobedience to the handler's command. The purpose is to convey disapproval, to inform the dog that he has made a bad choice and to motivate the dog to perform this behavior less readily in the future. Part of the meaning of the signals derives from the dog's natural reaction to the handler's tone of voice (harsh, nasty and snarling) and the handler's body language (harsh eye contact, dominant postures). The tone should be as similar to a wolf-snarl as the handler can achieve. Words like "NO !", "Leave it !". and the guttural "AACH !" lend themselves to such tones.

(Update note : an even better time to give a rebuke is when the dog is just about to start an undesirable behavior. Of course you have to be very good at reading the dog's body language in order to do this.)

The meaning of such-negative signals and their power to motivate can be greatly enhanced by association with inherently unpleasant or rebuking events, such as scruff-shake, an alpha-wolf-rollover, a jerk an a slip collar, a zap in the butt from a well aimed throw chain or a sting from a shock collar. Even a totally meaningless signal such as a buzzer can be transformed into a powerful rebuke signal by such a learned association. As with learned praise signals, once the association is well formed, the primary event need be used less and less frequently. If, during training, there has been a slight delay (a second or two) between the signal and the primary event, with the primary event being applied only if the dog fails to break off the undesired behavior during this brief grace period, then the dog may learn to prevent the primary event by always reacting within the grace period (this is the basis of two-button shock collars). If, as soon as the dog breaks off the undesirable behavior, the handler quickly gives a mild word of praise and then directs the dog into an approved activity and praises heartily when the dog complies, both the rebuke and praise signals become more meaningful and the undesirable behavior becomes less frequent (this is the basis of 3 button shock collars).

(Note : by 2 button shock collars I meant those that had a warning tone that came before the zap or could be given by itself. By 3 button, I meant those that had both the warning tone before the zap and a "safety tone" that came after the zap or could be given by itself. I really do NOT advocate the use of shock collars or remote trainers for anyone but very very experienced and expert trainers. I also really do NOT advocae the use of the "alpha roll-over", though there are very very rare circumstances where a really experienced trainer could use one appropriately. I think I have used a roll-over less than half a dozen times in over 25 years and over a hundred rescue dogs. Nowadays my physical corrections tend to be pretty mild ones, just enough to be mildly unpleasant, together with voice and body language as described above.)

Learned praise signals are especially valuable in working situations and competitive situations where practical consideration or rules limit the kinds of rewards that may be given and the times at which they may be given. In almost any real working situation, you can always use an enthusiastic "Good dog ! Good dog !" as a secondary reward. Most dogs become so conditioned to feeling pleasure at the sound of "Good dog!" that it is easy to forget that this is actually a secondary reward rather than an inherently meaningful primary reward (Try going to a foreign country and using this phrase on the dogs there; they will not recognize it as a reward). When your dog is working at a distance from you, though no other reward is possible, you can always encourage him with "Good dog !"

(Update note : there are also times when you want to say "good dog" in a very soothing tone, to steady or calm your dog or help him remain calm, rather than in an enthusiastic tone to excite and activate him. Eg when a dog is walking up to stock or driving them, a steadying soothing tone is generally what you want. Likewise on a Stay exercise, you want your dog to be as calm as possible.)

A string of learned praise signals may be used to bridge the gap between the moment the dog has earned a reward and the time you are able to pay off. For example, in AKC Tracking you cannot feed the dog until you have left the field, but you can verbally praise and pet (briefly) the dog for each article. For the last article, you can toss the article for him to retrieve or hold it up for him to grab and tug, or you can take off his harness and (under most judges) give him a drink of water. I carry both water and a container of food in my tracking backpack, so I do all of the above plus remove my backpack to get out the water and put away the harness. In training, of course, after doing all of that I get out the food and give it to her (Chelsea is a true glut-gut for whom food is the ultimate reward). At an actual test, I simply do more of this intervening behavior to fill in the time while we walk back to the car to actually give her a food reward, which on occasion is in the car and not in my pack. In AKC Obedience, there is nothing you can do except smile, smile, smile at your dog until the Judge says "Exercise finished". I've tried with Chelsea to get her to regard my imbecilic smile as an intermediate reward, but without reading her mind it's impossible to tell if this has had any good effects. At least it prevents me from frowning, or looking dismayed, which would have a very bad affect on her.

(Note : I pretty much had to invent the concept of "bridging" for myself, as I had not yet seen the behaviorist literature on this concept. In this case, the term I came up with turns out to be the same as that in the professional literature.)


Sandy Bryson uses the term "workup" for the signal or set of signals which:

In particular, Bryson uses workup commands to distinguish felony search from rescue search. Since the dog may be out of the handler's sight when he makes the find, it is vital that the dog know whether or not he is supposed to bite (felony) or report back to the handler and lead him to the find (rescue).

Thus, a workup routine is a set of signals and behaviors from the handler which informs the dog of the nature of the job and which get the dog into the right mood. Dogs very readily learn the signs (intentionally given or not) that an activity the dog likes is about to begin.

For example, Chelsea adores going for car rides, so she taught herself to notice any time I touch my purse or jingle the car keys or in any other way behave as if I might be thinking of going in the car. Needless to add, she quickly grasped the meaning of the invitational signal "Car !" She also loves to track and taught herself to notice my picking up the backpack in which I keep her harness. As we step out on the field, I work her up with "It's tracking time Wanna track?". Whatever the task, you can make a little ritual of the various preparations and add verbal signals in an emotionally appropriate tone of voice. For rescue search, Bryson uses a happily voiced, "Want to work Want to find?", coupled with a playful attitude, and then removes the dog's collar. For felony search, she uses a tense demeanor, lots of leash tension, and hisses "Watch him !" and "Bite !" while leaving the collar on.

"Workon" (work on) is my term for any continuing signal you could give the dog that would remind him of the nature of the task and distinguish it from other tasks. For example, in Bryson's system, the presence of absence of the collar could help the dog remember whether he is on a rescue mission or a felony mission. Some other search and rescue handlers attach a '"bringsal" (a stuffed leather roll dangling from the dog's collar ; the dog has been taught that if he makes a find, he is to grab the bringsal in his mouth and run back to the handler) to the dog's collar to serve an a reminder while others dress the dog in a brightly colored coat (for safety in wilderness search). For tracking dogs, the tracking harness serves as a reminder. Of course, whenever the dog and handler are in proximity to each other during the task , the handler's behavior (demeanor) and signals can be used to remind the dog of the task or revive hie enthusiasm for the task. Unlike a formal competition, in a practical situation use whatever signals you can to help your dog succeed and to help him enJoy the task.

Keep one caution about workup and work-on ritual in mind. For some kinds of work you don't want the dog to think that such signals must always precede the task. For personal protection it's all well and good to develop workup/work-on signals to psych the dog up, but also make utterly sure that he knows that a protection situation can occur suddenly, without these preliminaries. A real criminal will not wait about while you strap on your two inch wide macho collar and hiss commands at the dog. For a dog who enjoys protection work, an occasional no-workup surprise master-defense situation should be enough to prevent overdependence on workup signals. At any rate, think about how workup and work-on signals would fit into your own particular situation.


A label is simply a name attached to a thing or activity. It may have no immediate purpose in terms of getting the dog to do something, but it is a word that you are teaching the dog now just in cane you later think of a use for him knowing it. I have a marvelous cartoon in my collection showing a huge, hairy dog (much like an undocked, uncropped Bouvier) and a man beside it. The man is pointing at a bird and saying "that's a bird, spelled b-i-r-d."

Well, that's an ideal example of labeling, except that I don't suggest you teach your dog to spell. In fact, I live in dread that Chelsea may any day now catch onto the fact that "C-A-R" means "Car".

Sure, there's no reason~on for your dog to know his "mouse" toy, his "ball" toy and his "ring" toy by name. But, he's learning that listening to you and understanding you can lead to fun. There is some possible use to teaching him the names of "sheep" and "cows", since you may someday want to herd these critters and when you send him off on an out of sight outrun it will be handy to be able to tell him that there are "sheep" on the other side of the hill. If he knows the words "trot" and "canter", it may come in handy when you go for an A.D. or it might help speed up his UD Directed Jump sendaway.

(Note : for the herding dog , teaching "walk" as a specific gait, ie that he dog should walk rather than move faster, is very very useful.)

The very greatest thing about teaching labels is that you are not under any pressure to succeed, any time limits or competition rules. This can be tremendously liberating ! You are teaching your dog for your mutual pleasure. You may be absolutely shocked to find how easily your dog learns under such conditions. You may be stunned and delighted to find that your dog is smarter and more willing to please than you had given him credit for You may even be jarred into remembering that you got into dogs in the first place in order to have fun and companionship!


As your dog begins to amass a large vocabulary, you might want to start keeping a record of all his signals and their meaning. This is. insurance in case the need would arise for someone else to handle the dog, such as taking care of the dog while you are away, or after your unanticipated and much mourned demise. Videotape is the ideal medium, as it can capture nuances of vocal expressions and gesture, but a written description is adequate for all the really basic vocabulary. Needless to say, there's a lot of satisfaction in watching your dictionary grow.


This whole article has been about all the things you might want to say to your dog and how to get him to understand you. Please don't forget that he has a lot to say to you as well if only you will listen and try to understand.

(Update note : and I have probably spent more of the 22 years since this piece was written in learning to understand what the dog was "saying" by body language and behavior than I have in trying to get the dogs to understand what I am saying to them. You really do need both abilities if you are going to live with a dog in harmony.)


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site author Pam Green copyright 1985, 2003
created 8/08/07 revised 9/08/07
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