Do You Dogs REALLY Want To Come In?

(In answer to a couple of comments: The title of the post is correct. I am addressing my dogs and asking if they want to come in. Sorry if it comes off as clunky,)

What do my dogs understand when I ask them a question?

A while back I read a suggestion that we should stop giving our dogs one-word verbal cues and start asking them questions instead. In full sentences.

Talking to our dogs is no biggie–most of us talk to our dogs all day, right? But doing so instead of carefully trained and clarified cues when we need a certain behavior? Several claims followed the suggestion. First, that if we ask our dogs verbal questions as prompts for behavior we are not actually giving them cues. Second, that dogs understand that when we ask them questions we are giving them choices. Finally, that asking dogs questions with the intention of giving them choices takes us outside of the realm of operant conditioning.

Whoa. I’m going to try to unravel this group of statements.

First, about the cues.  Any change in the environment that can be sensed by an animal can function as a discriminative stimulus or cue.  For example, a whistle from a human, a hand signal, a sound in the environment, or an odor can all be discriminative stimuli. A verbal question from a human is a series of sounds. It can be a discriminative stimulus, or can contain one. There’s no reason in the world to exempt questions from that definition.

This is Learning Theory 101. So far so good?

Second, about the choices. While dogs may come to understand that a questioning tone acts as a predictor of certain things, we do not know that they understand questions semantically as we do. I’ll expand on that below.

Finally, about learning theory. Both operant learning and respondent conditioning are going on all the time, whether we want them to be or not. Antecedents set the stage for behaviors. Consequences affect whether the behaviors increase or decrease. You can’t magically step away from antecedents and consequences by using a sentence with a particular inflection.

And it turns out that I might be just the right person to demonstrate this. I can demonstrate a few things about questions and choices because of how I communicate with my dogs. And I can show you a video of the results.

“Do You Want To Go Outside?”

Several years ago I realized my dogs didn’t always need to go out or come in from the back yard every time I did. I had adult dogs and knew their habits well. I went outside more often than any individual dog needed to for elimination, so I started giving them a choice. I had long had the habit of asking, “Do you want to go outside?” as my cue for that, although I wasn’t originally giving a choice. But over the years, I started to let a dog stay inside if she hung back and I knew going out wasn’t essential. Likewise, if I asked the dogs whether they were ready to come in and someone wanted to stay in the yard longer, I accommodated that.

Plenty of people do this. There are people out there casually giving their dogs choices about activities all the time and letting their dogs vote with their feet. Plenty of us look for ways to let our dogs make decisions about what they’d like to do and when. That’s been going on long before choice became a trendy word in dog training.

Zani on stump
Zani exercising her choice to stay in the yard

So How Does That Question Work?

But what about this “asking” thing? How did my question become a cue for “choice”? Did my dogs have some innate understanding of my words or inflection? Not necessarily. Science has started to show that dogs can detect inflections and familiar words–no surprise–but there are not yet data showing that they parse that information as humans do. (See a list of articles on dogs and human language here.)

But there was an obvious way for them to learn about those “question” cues. And that was through the consequences.

Cues in positive reinforcement training are opportunities for reinforcement. The thing we tend to forget is that using any cue is offering a choice, even when we’d rather not be doing so. There are decades’ worth of studies about reinforcement characteristics and the likelihood of a response from an animal.

Any due we give in a positive reinforcement scenario offers a choice, whether we want it to or not. Any cue can be a question.

When we want a dog to respond reliably to a cue, we use high value reinforcers on a dense schedule.  We also limit access to reinforcers for the behaviors we don’t want. So what would we do if we want the animal to have a more of a choice? The opposite! We would use a weak-ish reinforcer ourselves so as not to stack the deck in our direction. We would make sure that there are reinforcers available for other choices. And we would not penalize the dog for making those other choices.

And that’s what I did. For example, when inviting the dogs to come in the house from the yard, I used low value reinforcers. Each dog who came in got a piece of kibble. Enough to sweeten the deal, but not so much that it overpowered the value of the other choice. Any dog could stay in the yard instead. There were naturally reinforcing activities in the yard, and all they’d miss would be one piece of kibble. (Which they could get later, although I don’t know if they thought about it that way.)

I deliberately paired a cue with weak reinforcement, and I didn’t intervene if they chose the “stay in the yard” option. I could have skipped the food reinforcer entirely. Coming in the house is often reinforcing by itself. But I want to reinforce my dogs–in some way–any time they come to me after I have cued it.

“Real” Recall Cues

If that weakly reinforced cue were the only way I had to call my dogs, I’d be in trouble. A strong recall is a safety issue. I also have a strongly reinforced recall cue for each of my dogs. These cues are designed and trained to a level that the dogs’ responses are reliable even in the face of large temptations. When I use those recall cues, I pay well. I bring out the meat and fish.

So again, for the choice recall I pay low. If they choose not to respond, I let them go about their business.  For the “real” recall cue I pay high value, and keep it practiced so that their responses are reliable.

The differences in the dogs’ responses are a result of the quality of the reinforcement. They are not necessarily a result of questioning tone. It’s not some intrinsic quality of the antecedent. It’s the consequence that is tied to it.

Movie: Two Different Recall Cues

The movie shows what Zani does when she hears her heavily reinforced recall vs. what she does when she hears her “come if you want” cue.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

Wait–What’s the Real Cue?

This is important. When I invite my dogs inside, is my verbal question the only cue? Nope. There’s something more salient than what I’m saying. It’s the fact that I am up on the porch, headed to the back door.

There are tons of cues like this in our dogs’ lives. If I am about to get my dogs’ supper, the time of day plus the fact that I’m walking to the kitchen show that. Other actions strengthen the message, including my gathering up the dogs’ food toys and getting out the food. It’s common for something other than our exact verbal cue to be the most noticeable cue for our dogs. My friend Debbie Jacobs has a great little movie where she is out with her dogs in the woods. Her dogs are all out of sight. She calls out, “Overhead slide projectors!” Her dogs come running. Her dogs are not responding to the specific words. It’s enough that they are out in the woods and she calls out some words, any words.

People who say that our dogs have advanced understanding of human language are making extraordinary claims. At the same time they are often ignoring dogs’ masterful powers of observation. Extraordinary claims require strong evidence.  Stronger than saying, “When I ask my dog a question, she understands she has a choice, because this study showed that dogs have a language center in their brains just like humans.” It’s difficult to control variables enough to show evidence for this outside a laboratory. I’ll be discussing the Law of Parsimony and the idea of falsifiability of claims in a future post.

Whose Language?

Often when we scratch the surface of a recommendation that sounds attractive–”Ask your dogs questions instead of ordering them around with robotic monosyllables!”–we find that the claimed results may not be as advertised. Or they may not be happening for the reasons cited. In response to the inevitable question: I talk to my dogs all day every day. But when I am actually trying to impart information to them, I try to be very clear.  I believe that it is humane and loving to give clean, clear cues to dogs and not to overestimate their language capabilities.

The blanket recommendation of using complex conversational cues strikes me as odd for another reason. I currently have three dogs, and have trained another handful. Not a huge sample, but that’s part of the point. I have perceived big differences in how easily they learn verbal cues even within this small group. My little hound mix Zani has a really hard time learning verbal cues (though she’s great at inflections). I’m sure part of it is my poor training mechanics, but even so, there is a clear difference in how many repetitions Zani needs to learn a verbal cue compared to my dog Summer, for instance. And Zani is no slouch in the brains department. So I am concerned about wholesale recommendations to switch over to sentences, since for some dogs verbals are the thing they pay the least attention to.

Finally, I think focusing on dogs’ supposed understanding of human language is very human-centric.  I’d rather put that energy into reading them better and learning their language. Dogs are already saying yes and no to things all the time, if only we would listen.

Regarding Comments

I’ve provided this handy list of the recent journal articles on this topic: Dogs and Language. If you want to comment about the findings, please quote the actual articles and not the blog posts or major media articles about them. Many have been sensationalistic.

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Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson


21 thoughts on “Do You Dogs REALLY Want To Come In?

  1. Terrific explanation of how some trainers get the idea of “choice” a bit wrong. Interestingly, I have totally trained the same yard behavior in my dogs. They each have a “really reliable” recall cue, as well as the more conversational one which is differentially reinforced by kibble or a biscuit versus meat. Great minds lol…

    1. Thanks, Anne! That’s funny that you do that recall thing too. It’s nice to give pleasant choices rather than forced ones!

  2. Hi Eileen, great blog as usual!

    I used to brag about my dogs being bi-lingual, because they would sit when asked, whether I spoke to them in French or in English! However, I am pretty sure that the reason my dogs sat when I asked them to do so was because we were in the kitchen and I had food in my hands, and had nothing to do with the language I spoke.

    My question is, do you think dogs understand our verbal cues in the absence of all the non-verbal cues we are constantly giving them (intended or unintended!)?

    I often wonder, if a well trained dog who apparently understood verbal cues was placed in a room that it had never been in before* by itself and the verbal cue (for example sit) was given to it over a microphone would the dog respond to the cue? What do you think?

    *thus removing any previous location reinforcers/cues as well as visual cues from the handler.


    1. Hi Rebecca,

      I had long planned the kind of exercise you mention but haven’t done it yet. But I know how much my dogs rely on contextual cues. The one complication–dogs respond differently to recordings than to the actual voice! I have a friend who experimented with giving cues through her ipad. Her dog learned it, but not instantly. (With her sitting there with the dog.) So we would first have to get them used to the voice over the speaker.

      I think truly teaching a verbal cue to fluency can be much more difficult than people think, since dogs read us so very well.

      There’s a video out there (that I won’t single out and pick on) that makes a claim about dogs responding to auditory cues where the handler is doing TONS of body cuing, I mean pointing and moving and all sorts of stuff. I’m pretty sure I know what would happen if she went behind a screen and tried it.

      I’m glad you like the issue. I think this is a GOOD thing about dog training, these kinds of challenges. And it doesn’t denigrate the dogs’ abilities at all to learn what it really is that they are cuing off of. Thanks for the comment!

      1. Hi Eileen,

        What I didn’t put in my original comment (it was 3 in the morning when I was reading your post!) was that I 100% agree with you when you say you’d rather put your energy into reading your dogs better and learning THEIR language.

        For me, training is about teaching my dogs a language so that they will understand me and what I am asking them to do (as well as learn some basic manners like dogs don’t belong on the table!).

        But a few years ago I actually started listening to my dogs. I was in the bathroom putting on makeup, when my little girl (dog – not human) came up to me and tentatively patted me on the leg. Instead of ignoring her or pushing her away, I asked her what she wanted.

        By following her body language (and in particular the cues she gave me with the direction of her eyes) – it was very tentative the first time – we figured out that she wanted to go downstairs and outside.

        It was the beginning of a revolution in our relationship – as the communication became two way. I can ask things of her, but she has learnt that she could ask things of me. Now Daisy comes and gets me when she wants to go out (normal) and when she wants a treat (again normal) but also when her brother has one of her toys and she wants it back, or she wants to go outside and play in the water. Last night she came and told me that she wanted to go into the wardrobe and the door was shut (she has never asked this of me before!).

        For me, this is the true joy of having a dog. Listening to what they are telling us, because as you say they are indeed talking to us all the time, if only we would listen.

        Thanks again for your blog!


        1. Love this! Thanks for sharing. Two of my dogs do this “look at the thing they want then look at Eileen” thing. “Would you get that for me?” I didn’t teach them this. They taught me.


  3. Very interesting once again, Eileen.
    I think the biggest pro about asking questions is in the mindset of the human. I agree with you it’s not optimal when it comes to clarity, hence why I don’t use full sentences when I really want something. But it could help some people who struggle to cross over in changing the way they feel about dogs.

    1. Yes! If you can just get people to talk nicely instead of “barking” commands, I’m sure a lot of dogs that would be very grateful!

  4. Right on, as usual, Eileen. I so agree that our human-centric ideas get us in trouble with dogs. (Can you say “dominance theory”? Who is concerned about status??) Even all humans don’t agree on tone and inflection. I once asked a Japanese native with rudimentary English how to pronounce her name, stress on the first syllable or the second. She couldn’t hear the difference!

    BTW I have 3 recall cues for my dog that would live outside if I’d let her: “Wanna come in?” is optional. “In the house!” means you really do have to and sometimes I have to say it twice. And “Come”, which is really reliable but probably because I never use it for moving from outside to inside. I just don’t have a reinforcement for that dog that is better than being outside.

    1. That’s interesting about your Japanese friend. The corollary to that is how some Asian languages (I think Mandarin is one) rely on actual pitch for meaning. That’s something we westerners don’t pay attention to except in a comparatively rudimentary way, and I bet there are differences we can’t hear if we didn’t grow up with it.

      That’s cool about your cues. My “outside” can be pretty exciting (especially in the early evening when the rodents are out) but yours must be super-wonderful!

  5. Always interesting. Thinking about it, when I ask my dogs if they want to come in I’m standing by the door, probably with my head to one side and doing a sort of Yes/No swaying and the door stays open for longer.

    1. Yep, standing at the door is a pretty clear cue, isn’t it? I like your description of what you are doing with your body and the door as well. I bet that is all pretty clear!

  6. Very interesting. I have a question I ask my male when the female is sleeping. I like taking each of them out separately to do things they enjoy. It doesn’t matter where I am in the house when I whisper ‘do you want to go with me ‘. He absolutely loves to go on an adventure every time! If you ever chose not to come with me I would think there was something very badly wrong with him. Sharon

  7. This is a great read! I ask my dogs questions all the time…some of the questions they appear to actually understand and others they have come to know what to expect and the response is more like I gave a cue — examples:

    Responding to a “question cue” that’s been given:
    During fetch I’ll frequently ask my Shepherd “Are you ready??” — to which she responds with an air chomp (and occasionally a bark when she’s really amped up). I don’t believe that she understands the actual question, but she’s been conditioned to understand the response that I want from her and she does, at this point, seem to get more excited when I ask her that during fetch, probably because of the anticipation of her ball being thrown.

    This is one they seem to understand the concept and understand that they have a choice that they get to make:
    One choice that I do allow my dogs to make is which bone, chew, or fetch toy they would like to have. I present them with two options (sometimes more) and I ask “which one do you want?”. Both dogs will sniff at the different options and then pick the one that they want — if they seem unsure I’ll sometimes follow up with “are you sure?” to which they’ll usually sniff a second time and then pick the one they want and wander off to their bed to chew.
    I do believe that they understand the concept here that they have a choice they can make.

    1. That’s interesting! How did you teach them to begin with on the choice thing that they could only have one? Are the objects big enough that they can only take one? If they ever took two did you gently take one away? That’s the thing that trips me up with choice stuff. My dogs would rather have “all the stuff” so I never know if the nice part of getting a choice is overpowered by the disappointment of not getting all of it. I do have a bunch of similar chew items (five for two dogs) that are too awkward for any dog to hold more than one at a time. They all seem to enjoy choosing one and carrying it away but they also then enjoy stealing them from each other. (The items are only medium value and I supervise, or this wouldn’t be safe. I’m not making a general suggestion of the practice.) Thanks for the describing those two different situations.

      1. I think the first couple of times that I was testing out letting them choose an item they were on their dog beds, I presented the two items (in my hands), and once they made their choice I then lifted the other one out of their range, and asked them to lay down. Now I have them choose wherever and they take the item to their bed and lay down, and with mild interest watch other dog get theirs and do the same. Then they both chew happily until they finish or until I take whatever it is away so they can chew it another day.

        It is usually something that they can’t grab two of (raw bone, other large bone, etc). If they did try to take two or they did try to go and investigate/take the other dogs choice I would probably take away theirs, tell them too bad, and they would have to lay on their bed while the other got to chew for a while — I haven’t had it happen though [they’re pretty well versed at this point on sticking to their own stuff and not bothering the other dog, particularly when they have something of high value].

        As far as fetch toys, only one of my dogs plays fetch so her choosing doesn’t bother my dog (he just ignores it) — and also, her fetch toys are put away in a drawer unless we’re going to the park. She loves her tennis football though, so I wouldn’t expect her to have choosers remorse when it comes to that. lol

        1. Very interesting! Thanks for spelling all that out. It sounds like they were “OK” with the other item being taken away. And the occasional negative punishment of taking it away if they get grabby would seem to firm up the idea. Thanks for answering my questions! Glad it’s working out nicely for your dogs.

    1. Thanks! I already did; would you check the web-based version to make sure for me please? Apparently I did it so late in the game that it didn’t “catch” for the outgoing emails. Maxwell was spelled incorrectly, right? Or is there something else I’m not seeing?

      Thanks Lesley. I always WELCOME these kinds of corrections.

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