A lot of the language used to talk about training and behaviour can get a bit complicated. So just in case you need to brush up on some of the terms we, or other dog professionals might use, we have put together a short glossary.

Cue/cue word

This is a signal that you give a dog to ask them to do something, it could be visual, like a hand signal, verbal like the word “sit” or something else, like a vibrating collar for deaf dogs or a whistle. It can also be referred to as a command.

Luring

Most dogs will follow a reward like a treat or toy, so you can use them almost like a magnet to get your dog’s attention and pull them into the position you want. Holding and moving it at head height will get them to move around and lifting it will make most dogs raise their heads and lower their bottoms into a sit position.

If you are using a lure make sure you give your dog the reward fairly often, especially at first, so they don’t get too frustrated. Always remove the lure and stop the session if they get too close and start nibbling at your hands. One way to help with this is to use a secondary reinforcer like “good” before giving them the reward, so they know to just follow it until that cue, at which point you will give it to them.

Positive Reinforcement

This refers to a way of training dogs by rewarding good or desired behaviour.

Typically, a trainer will set up the session in a way that gives dogs a fairly simple choice between making the right or wrong decision, usually weighted towards the right one. If they make the right decision, they get a reward, and the wrong decision gets ignored. If the dog makes too many wrong decisions the trainer knows they need to re-evaluate their set up as they have made it too hard.

We recommend this approach as research shows it is just as effective as other types of training, leads to better human-dog bonding and less fear from dogs. Done effectively it makes training just another fun game for us and our dogs, albeit one than has very helpful outcomes!

Primary Reinforcer

A primary reinforcer is anything that a dog finds rewarding, that we then use to help with training, this could be a tasty treat or their favourite toy. We don’t have to teach a primary reinforcer in the way we do with a secondary reinforcer, as we usually choose something the dog already likes.

Some people worry that this is a bit like bribing dogs, but we like to think of it as building positive associations or paying them fairly for doing things that we ask. Most of the time you will phase out the reward anyway, although it is nice to throw a reward in every so often, even if your dog is a pro!

You can get creative with your primary reinforcers. For some dogs playing a game, or getting to sniff something new, could be even more rewarding than a treat.

Secondary Reinforcer

This is the term we use to describe a signal, usually a word like “good” or a clicker (a device that you hold and makes a click noise), that tells the dog they have done the right thing and will get a reward. It acts as a marker of the correct behaviour or response and can be useful if you are training at a distance or have trouble getting a reward to a dog quickly enough to reward the desired behaviour.

The term comes from the dog learning that this signal is connected to them getting a reward, also known as a primary reinforcer – making this the secondary reinforcer. You would usually teach a dog your chosen secondary reinforcer by pairing it repeatedly – for example clicking and then quickly giving the dog a treat – until they expect a treat as soon as they hear the click.

Visual cue

This is something you can do or an object you use, that your dog can see and that tells them something important – usually that you are asking them to perform a behaviour. A common example is a hand signal, but a visual cue could also be a coloured towel you put somewhere that you want your dog to sit or an item of clothing or equipment that you put on to signal that you’re going to start training. You might have noticed your dog picks up on these kinds of signals all the time, like when you put your boots on to go for a walk or get their food bowl out.

When training a new behaviour, we often start with a visual cue as they develop quite easily from a luring action, and we want our second vocal cue to be nice and distinct – so we only add it in once the behaviour is well established. Because dogs rely a lot on body language and visual communication and pick up on even our most subtle movements, people often find that their dog is responding more to their visual cues – even subconscious ones – than their vocal cues!

Having a visual cue attached to a behaviour is particularly useful for working at a distance.