Should you give your dog a command only one time?

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© 2018 Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

The question as to whether or not you should repeat a command to a dog is one I am asked all of the time. Put a group of dog trainers together and ask them this question and you won’t get 100% agreement.

For this article I will use the word “command”, but dog behavior consultants and specialists almost exclusively use the word “cue” for a number of reasons.

"…experienced and competent dog trainers know there are times when you don’t repeat a command, and times when you should."

Positive dog trainers (i.e., those who avoid punishing dogs and use positive reinforcement such as treats, play and affection to train) tend to feel that a repeated command is not the end of the world. Those dog trainers who use aversive methods (e.g., choke collars, prong collars, shock collars, leash “corrections”) lean toward the you-only-say-it-once rule.

For the record, the most well-known and respected dog behaviorist in the world, Dr. Ian Dunbar, is completely okay with repeating commands multiple times in some situations.

After working with thousands of dogs and dog owners, I can tell you that the reality lies somewhere in-between the two extremes of you-say-it-only-once and repeating-commands-is-okay schools of thought. Experienced and competent dog trainers know there are times when you don’t repeat a command, and times when you should. There is no monolithic rule.

When should you repeat and when should you not? Below is a checklist that will help you train your dog in a way that will increase human-dog communication and therefore reduce repeated commands.

If dogs mess up a command, at a minimum, don’t reward them for the miscommunication between dog and human.  Withhold the reward and start over again.

Don’t use commands at all until dogs have some idea what you are asking them to do. If you start saying “sit” before dogs have any idea what you are trying to teach, they might think “sit” means to just look at you. And by the way, your dog doesn’t understand what “sit” means before you lure or shape that behavior first.

When dogs are first learning a command, it is essential that they look at you. If your dog is making eye contact with you, the probability of compliance skyrockets.

When first teaching your dog a command, be sure to control distractions. Distracted dogs are much harder to teach new commands. Dog training experts like to say there are three primary variables involved in training dogs: distance, distraction and duration. How far can the handler be from the dog and still get compliance? Will the dog comply with the command when in a highly distracting environment? Finally, how long will the dog comply with the command (e.g., stay)?

When dogs are learning they need a few seconds sometimes in order to figure out what you’re trying to teach them. By just waiting two to three seconds (literally) after giving a command, the chance of compliance will increase dramatically. Say it once, take a breath and give the dog a chance to comply.

Using a pleasant voice with dogs can dramatically increase compliance. Dogs like higher pitched commands that inflect up at the end of the word. Would you want to work with someone who yelled commands at you?

Don’t be afraid to give dogs a reward each and every time they comply with a command when they are first learning something. You can always fade out the rewards over time. Humans work for rewards and so do our dogs. How many more times would you show up at work if they stopped your paycheck?

Use these ideas to create better communication between your dog and you during training. This will reduce the need for repeated cues and make training more fun for both of you.