The Language of Dog Training and Why It Matters

By Joan Hunter Mayer

Do you ever consider if the words we use matter when we approach training our canine companions? Do terms that reflect a positive, supportive outlook have physical, mental and emotional effects on us and our relationships with our pets? Conversely, what about an authoritative mindset where we’re having to tell our dogs what to do and when to do it? Perhaps you can see how, from that perspective, if a dog doesn’t listen, we’re likely to get upset and frustrated.

Now, let’s look at some specific examples where having more of a teaching, coaching, and cheerleading attitude in your training approach-and language- can get you into the “We can do it!” mindset and help you reach your goals.

Teaching Life Skills or Demanding Obedience?

According to the Oxford dictionary, and many other dictionaries, the definition of “Obedience” is, “compliance with an order, request, or law or submission to another’s authority.” Looking at this definition more closely, the emphasis is on the person/animal being told what to do.

Humane, force-free dog training requires a different understanding. Instead of having to tell our dogs what to do, we can teach them ‘Life Skills’ so they learn to make good choices on their own. It’s about having a more ‘pawsitive’ approach. This path focuses on teamwork and encourages inquisitive canines to enjoy offering ‘good’ behaviors. 

Is It Motivation or Bribery?

Another example to illustrate the importance of choosing our training terminology mindfully is understanding the difference between motivation and bribery. Like comedy, dog training is all about timing! The difference between motivation and bribery all comes down to timing.

A scenario from our human world would be getting pulled over by a law enforcement officer. Let’s say you’re driving down the highway and you get pulled over. The peace officer says they are going to issue you a citation for going over the speed limit. You interrupt their action and say, “Hey, if I give you this crisp hundred-dollar bill, would you forget you ever saw me?” This exchange would be bribery, as you are providing something you hope this person wants (bribe) before they issue the citation (the behavior).

As a dog training example, it’d be like offering your dog a treat before they performed the behavior you ask for. “Here’s a treat. Will you ‘sit’ now?” In both examples, whether it is a behavior you desire (sit) or don’t desire (getting a ticket), you are providing something the other wants, before they offer a behavior or take action.

Now, using the same highway scenario, let’s look at motivation. You get pulled over; the peace officer says they are going to issue you a citation for going over the speed limit. You explain that you had been listening to an engaging podcast on animal behavior and must have gotten sidetracked and weren’t aware of your infraction. You then apologize and admit your wrongdoing. They, in turn, appreciate your honesty and let you know that they’re going to let you off with a warning this time but please be aware in the future. You thank them profusely and go on your merry way. You then make a nice donation to the local law enforcement fund in this officer’s name, drop off homemade croissants at the station, and make sure you’re driving the speed limit in the future. As a dog training example, your dog sits and you treat them for doing so, after the behavior is offered. 

Remember that behaviors are driven — or motivated — by consequences, not the request. If you’re giving the learner what they want before the behavior is offered, then what would motivate them to offer any future behaviors? 

The Opposite of Stressed is Relaxed (Not Tired)

While we’re on the topic of anxiety-provoking events, let’s talk about stress and dogs. There are some training plans out there that encourage dog parents to get their dogs nice and tired, to help alleviate stress. And that brings us to the next set of terms that could probably use some clarification. There is a difference in meaning between being physically exhausted and being genuinely calm, relaxed and comfortable in an environment or situation.

I think it’s safe to say, we’ve all been tired…and we’ve all been stressed and uncomfortable. In our own lives, we may note that being physically exhausted doesn’t equate to being less stressed. If we’re stressed about something, but also tired, then we’re just stressed and tired (arguably an even worse feeling).

Similarly, pet parents who would like to help a pet who is suffering from fear, anxiety or stress will want to 1) understand their dog’s stressors and 2) address them. Then their inquisitive canines can feel truly relaxed and stress-free. Addressing the root of the problem may require a visit with your dog’s vet for medical evaluation and/or medication, as well as assistance from a qualified force-free canine behavior consultant to help your dog develop a positive conditioned response to certain situations.

Why Our Words Matter

It’s important for pet guardians to learn to read canine body language – an extremely valuable skill. But let’s remember to consider our own language too. It’s time to do away with outdated approaches that use outdated techniques, and adopt a more engaging, encouraging, and motivating tone and mindset. It’s good for ourselves, and for our inquisitive canines. 

The Inquisitive Canine was founded by Santa Barbara canine behavior consultant and certified professional dog trainer Joan Hunter Mayer. Joan and her team are devoted to offering humane, pawsitive, practical solutions that work for the challenges dogs and their humans face in everyday life. Here’s to barking with the dogs, cheering for the humans, and having fun!


Written by Joan the Dog Coach

Joan Hunter Mayer is a certified canine behavior consultant and certified professional dog trainer who founded "The Inquisitive Canine." More information can be found at

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