Como se Dice "Search"?

Teaching dogs to speak our language.

There are close to 7,000 different languages that we humans use to communicate with each other.  There are millions of people who are unable to read this paragraph without translation software.

To learn how to communicate with their parents, children are spoken to by their parents who relate those words to objects and actions.  Children learn that the round, red thing with the stem is an "apple", compared to the round, orange thing with no stem, which they learn is an "orange". 

We've made up names, adjectives, verbs, and all other phrases for everything we can think of.  And for everything we can't figure out, well, they're called "things".

We humans rely on verbal communication so much, we sometimes forget that our dogs, and sometimes our fellow humans, don't always understand what we're trying to tell them.

Dogs rely on a complex system of body language to communicate within their species.  As we've domesticated them, they have come to learn our body language, facial expressions, and can even 'follow' when we point at something. 

Even so, when words come out of our mouth, they are still at a loss.  

The fact that we can communicate so fluidly with another species is remarkable.  Dogs have evolved to be incredibly in sync with our body language and physical cues.


Sometimes we need more than just physical cues when communicating with our dogs.  Auditory cues have to be used in some circumstances.


And it doesn't matter WHAT language we speak.  Dogs can learn any language imaginable.


Why does the language that we speak not matter?  

Because, just like human children, dogs are not born knowing spoken word- they are taught its meaning through learned association. 

It is important to remember that dogs ignore almost everything we say.  They focus on key words and phrases.  Do your dog's ears perk up when they hear "treat" or "dinner"?  That's because they have formed a strong association between those words and food.  You have their attention, because those words have meaning.

When your dog sleeps through your hour long conversation with your best friend about that weird hairdo a woman was sporting at the gym, they're not ignoring you because they don't care about what happened at the gym; they are ignoring you because none of the words you say have any meaning to them.  Certainly, if you and your friend began a longing discussion about "eating" and how much you want "food" and how "hungry" you are, an eye may open and your dog may start licking its lips. 

That is, only if you've actually paired those words with food.

So how do we get dogs to stop ignoring us, pay attention, and listen to the words that are coming out of our mouth?

  1. Directly associate the word with a its defined meaning.
    • "Hungry?" then feed the dog.  Soon, the dog associates "Hungry?" with food.
    • "Wanna play?" then take out a toy.  Soon, the dog associates "Wanna play?" with a fun activity.
  2. Classically conditioning reinforcement markers.
    • "Yes"/"Good" then allow the dog to access the reward.  Soon, the dog associates "Yes"/"Good" with the warm fuzzy feeling associated with food, and "Yes"/"Good" can take the place of the actual reward.
    • "No" then remove the dog's access to the reward.  Soon, the dog associates "No" with being denied access to the reward, and "No" can take the place of removal of the actual reward when there is no reward to remove.
  3. Learned association paired with a physical prompt or known behavior.
    • Lure the dog into a "sit", repeat until proficient with a physical prompt.
    • Then, add the word "sit" before you physically prompt the dog.
    • The verbal cue, "sit", precedes the physical prompt.
    • Since the dog already knows 'lift hand over nose = butt hits floor', it pairs "sit" with the behavior it is already proficient in performing.
    • Soon, "sit" replaces the physical prompt. 

Number 3 on that list is going to be the topic of the remainder of this discussion.

Training the Verbal Cue

The procedure for training the verbal cue is:

  1. "Verbal Cue"
  2. Physical Prompt
  3. Mark
  4. Reward

Looks simple, right?  It is, as long as you avoid the mortal sin of training the verbal cue.


What is overshadowing?  Overshadowing occurs when a prompt is 'missed', or is overshadowed by, another prompt.  How does this happen?

Refer back to our discussion about how dogs have evolved to be extremely good at analyzing our body language.  Because of this, dogs 'listen' more to our body than to our mouth.  Body language and physical prompts are more salient communicative devices.  Dogs will 'miss' a verbal cue if it occurs at the same time or after a physical prompt.

If your progression is, physical prompt - "verbal cue" - mark - reward, your dog will have a very difficult time learning that the "verbal cue" is associated with the physical prompt.  Thus "sit" will not mean "sit", no matter how many times it's said.

An easy way to avoid overshadowing is to pause an extra beat in your progression.  Breathe in, give your verbal cue, breathe out, then give your physical prompt.  While it is preferred to have your cues given as closely as possible, it is more important that the physical prompt not overshadow the verbal cue.  As you progress in your own skills, you'll learn to link the two closer together.

Remember that this is EXACTLY the same technique that we use to develop our conditioned reinforcers.  "Yes" then feed, "Yes" then feed, "Yes" then feed.  It is not "Yes"Feed at the same time. 

Learned Inattention

Remember how your dog didn't care about that woman with the weird hairdo?  The same way it learns to ignore those words, it can learn to ignore the commands you are trying to teach it.

For most people, this becomes apparent with their recall cue (for our purposes, "come"). 

Most people call dogs over constantly, "come here Lassie", "Lassie come on", "hey stop that come here!", "come on dog, get over here", etc. etc.  Rarely is the command ever enforced or reinforced.  If the dog comes, it rarely gets any type of reward (no, a pat on the head does not typically suffice for most dogs); if it doesn't come, it rarely is made to come, as most people don't have long-lines or tethers attached between themselves and their dogs on a 24/7 basis. 

If a command is not positively reinforced, it is less likely to occur in the future.  If a command is not enforced, it is also less likely to occur in the future. 

Thus, EVERY TIME you say "come" and the dog ignores you, you are now teaching the dog that "come" is one of the thousands of words that it can ignore.  You've now lost your recall cue.


  1. The verbal cue is never added until the physical prompt or behavior is proficient.
    • We cannot cue a dog to perform a behavior it does not know how to do.
    • "Sit" cannot mean "sit" until we've shown the dog how to sit. 
  2. In the teaching phase, the verbal cue is only use if the dog is actually paying attention.
    • A dog that is not paying attention is not learning what you want it to do and is learning how to ignore you.
  3. The verbal cue is only used if the behavior can be enforced, either by physical prompt or manipulation (ie. using the leash to prompt a recall). 
  4. We use our verbal cues deliberately and only when we are requesting specific behaviors.
    • "Down" does not mean lay down AND get off of the furniture.  Those are two separate behaviors that require two separate cues- "down" and "off".
    • We preserve our "no" marker by training incompatible behaviors.  If a dog jumps on a counter, we don't say "no", we say "off".  If a dog gets into the garbage we don't say "no", we say "leave it".  That way, our "no" does not get muddied in the vagueness of the human language and is preserved for its use as a non-reinforcement marker.
    • We enforce the behavior we verbally prompted- if the dog does not come when called, we either physically prompt the dog or physically manipulate its return.

The verbal cue in nosework

We use one verbal cue in nosework: "search".  This is the cue that prompts the dog to begin searching for the target odor.  

Because we teach our dogs a defined search pattern, we do not add the verbal cue until the dog is reliably investigating the scent board and has shown obedience to odor.  Thus, when we add the verbal cue, we are reasonably sure that the dog will perform the behavior. 

The progression is:

  1. "Search"
  2. Dog Searches
  3. Dog Alerts
  4. Reward

We must be cautious about introducing our "search" cue too early.  It is the MOST important cue you have in your toolbox in nosework.  It is the cue that specifies the specific behavior of searching, NOT the behavior of odor recognition or alerting.  "Search" specifies the behavior of searching in a defined search pattern and the obedience to the pattern.  It is the cue that we can enforce and reinforce.  



If you plan to train your dog to search using a defined search pattern, DO NOT continue to use the same verbal cue you were using to prompt an area search

Why?  Because your verbal cue for your area search is a DIFFERENT behavior than your verbal cue for your defined search pattern.  If "search" means "search the area independently in any pattern and find the target odor on your own" you will cause a lot of conflict when you start restricting that search pattern to a defined search pattern.  Your dog will not understand why it is wrong.

Instead, use a DIFFERENT word for the defined search pattern (the same way we have different words for different but similar obedience behaviors- "down" and "off"). 

If you are new to the defined search pattern and our training methods, we will recommend you not say anything to your dog until it has learned the new searching behavior, and then we will add a new search command "find it" instead of "search" or vice versa.

In Summary:

  1. Adding the verbal cue does not occur until the behavior is proficient.
  2. The verbal cue PRECEDES the physical prompt.
  3. One verbal cue is associated with one behavior.
  4. The verbal cue must be enforced and reinforced. 
  5. If the dog isn't listening, instead of assuming disobedience, consider that it may not understand what you are trying to communicate.

Questions or Comments?

Want to train with us?

Order your FREE Kaiser K9 Handbook and make sure to register for our upcoming classes!