Dog Training: The Differences between Cues and Commands

Dog Training: The Differences between Cues and Commands

As anyone who's navigated the realm of dog training knows, it's an area rich with varying terminologies, methodologies, and philosophies. Over the years, dog trainers and animal behaviorists have developed and refined numerous approaches to teaching our canine companions. Some training styles are built upon stern authority, others on gentle guidance, and yet others on a balanced mix of both.

Central to many of these dog training philosophies are two terms that often bewilder novice pet owners: "cues" and "commands." On the surface, these two words might seem interchangeable; they both involve signaling a dog to perform a certain action. However, upon deeper exploration, the difference between the two can be profound, impacting not only the training process but also the relationship that dogs and their owners share.

If you’re only just preparing to train a new dog, whether you’re working with a puppy or an adult dog, chances are you’ve already stocked up on the necessary materials like wholesale dog collars, leashes, and perhaps even a crate for house training. Your next step is to read up key dog training terminology for insight on how to approach the training process. This feature from PrideBites will walk you through the fundamental definitions of cues and commands in dog training and discuss the importance of understanding how these two terms differ.

How Are Cues Different from Commands?

In traditional dog training, the term "command" denotes an order given by the trainer—an expectation that the dog will perform a particular action. The connotation here is somewhat authoritative, positioning the trainer and the dog in a strictly hierarchical relationship. Non-compliance with a command often leads to correction, reflecting an assumption that the dog must submit to the trainer's authority, though the approach to enforcement generally varies. Some trainers use brusque physical corrections, but others might employ milder negative consequences such as the removal of a toy or a brief time-out.

On the other hand, "cue" is a term frequently employed in modern, positive reinforcement-based dog training methodologies. Rather than an order, a cue is a signal that offers the dog an opportunity to perform a certain behavior for a reward. Compliance with the cue is incentivized by positive outcomes like treats, praise, or play, while non-compliance results in these rewards being withheld, without the introduction of punishment.

Why Do Pet Owners Need to Know the Difference?

Recognizing the divergence between cues and commands is important for dog owners for a few reasons. Firstly, it informs the owner’s choice of a training philosophy. If you believe in fostering a relationship with your dog based on mutual trust and positive reinforcement, you might gravitate toward a cue-based approach. If, instead, you prefer clear hierarchy and believe in the efficacy of correction, a command-based approach might be more appealing.

Secondly, understanding the distinction between cues and commands supports clear, effective communication during training. Whether you're communicating an expectation (command) or offering an opportunity for reward (cue), being consistent and clear in your signals enhances the training process, helping your dog understand and respond to your instructions.

Why Consider Training with Cues over Commands?

In recent years, the world of dog training has seen a noticeable shift towards positive reinforcement methods and away from dominance-based approaches. This trend has brought with it an increased preference for cue-based training. But why should dog owners consider training with cues rather than commands? Let’s examine some of the most compelling arguments for this approach below:

It Supports the Dog's Emotional Well-Being

Advocates of cue-based training argue that it ultimately supports better emotional health for participating dogs. Training that involves harsh corrections and punishments can create anxiety and fear, which can lead to behavioral problems down the line. In contrast, cue-based training, grounded in positive reinforcement, is much less stressful.

By focusing on rewarding the behaviors you want to see more of, rather than punishing those you want to eliminate, you’ll create a more positive learning environment for your dog. This method supports not only better behavior but also a happier and more confident disposition in your dog.

It Enhances Training Efficacy

Dog trainers who prefer positive reinforcement training often point to the significant body of currently existing research supporting its efficacy. The science of learning and behavior tells us that both human and animal subjects are more likely to repeat a behavior that’s followed by pleasant consequences, such as praise or material rewards. Using cues to signal opportunities for rewards, then, will essentially set your dog up for success.

Cue-based training often results in dogs who are more eager to learn and participate in training. They become active learners, figuring out which behaviors will earn them rewards. This, in turn, can lead to faster learning and better retention of trained behaviors.

It Strengthens the Relationship between Dogs and Dog Parents

Lastly, and perhaps most profoundly, training with cues over commands can significantly enhance the relationship between you and your dog. In a command-based approach, the relationship can sometimes become adversarial, with the owner exerting dominance and the dog submitting. In contrast, a cue-based approach fosters a relationship of cooperation and mutual understanding.

When you use cues and rewards, you associate yourself with positive experiences in your dog's mind. You become not just the source of good things like food and play, but also a partner in a fun and rewarding game of figuring out what behaviors are ideal. This shared positive experience can contribute to a healthier and happier relationship between you and your dog in the long run.


Ultimately, understanding the difference between cues and commands in dog training is not just a matter of semantics. It's a consideration that cuts to the heart of your relationship with your pet, your training philosophy, and ultimately, the happiness and well-being of your canine companion. Once you familiarize yourself with the requisite terminology, you’ll be ready to develop a unique training approach that suits your needs and those of your dog.