What Is The Difference Between A Cue and A Command?

difference between a cue and a command
difference between a cue and a command

When you teach your dog a new behavior, you probably don’t think too much about how you’ll tell them or ask yourself: “What is the difference between a cue and a command?”

Or what it is that you want them to do.

But you could be missing a trick.

That’s because it could make all the difference to the success or failure of your dog training.

When we’re clear and consistent in our communication with our dogs, it becomes so much easier for them to understand what’s required.

And, that means you’re more likely to get the behaviors you do want and less of what you don’t want!

In this training guide you will learn about:

  • the difference between a cue and a command
  • what antecedent means and how it is used in dog training
  • different types of training cues and which one works best with your dog
  • what a poisoned cue is and how to get rid of it
  • tips for picking your cue words
  • tips to avoiding unwanted behavior when first training your dog
  • how to incorporate visual, auditory, and olfactory(scent) cues when training your dog

What’s The Difference Between A Cue And A Command?

The two words, cue, and command may sound very similar, but they have very different connotations. We looked at the Merriam-Webster dictionary to see how they described the two terms:

Command verb – to give (someone) an order: to tell (someone) to do something in a forceful and often official way.

Cue verb – to give a cue to:  to prompt them into action

So, already we can see that the use of verbal command implies force and officialdom, whereas a verbal cue is to prompt.

Even how we say the two words are different.

You probably say the word command with more force and in an authoritative way because that’s what the word means!

The world of dog training has gone through considerable changes in the last ten to twenty years. 

We now know that we don’t need to use force to teach our dogs.

We also know that we can develop a better relationship with our dogs when we focus on making training a two-way process.

A basic command comes with a potential threat, ‘do this or else.’ 

A verbal cue is a request, and if our dog doesn’t perform the required behavior, we recognize that we need to help our dog by being more effective with our training. 

What About An Antecedent?

As a dog owner or if you have used a professional dog trainer you may have heard the term antecedent being used.

An antecedent is a term used in dog training.

It is the action, event, or circumstance that led up to the behavior.

That means that your cue to ask your dog to sit is an antecedent.

You ask your dog to sit, and that then leads to them taking up the sit position.

A squirrel running up the tree might also be an antecedent, and for most dogs, that would trigger a chase response! 

visual cue

Types of Training Cues

There are three main types of training cues:

1. Auditory

An auditory cue is one that your dog hears. This might be a word that you say, such as ‘sit,’ or it might be a release cuethat you use to call your dog back to you.

Your dog might also have learned an auditory cue even though you never intended for that learning to take place.

So, that might be to give in to their impulse control and leap around all excited when the doorbell rings.

2. Visual

A visual cue is one that your dog sees and that comes from you.

You might, for example, give a hand signal by lowering your hand to the ground to tell your dog to lie down.

Just as with the auditory cues, a visual cue might also be unintended.

Maybe the moment your dog sees another dog, they begin to bark.

3. Olfactory

Olfactory cues are all about the world of scent.

While that might seem a little obscure to us, for our dogs, with their incredible sense of smell, the scent is one of the easiest ways to learn what’s required.

A dog’s nose has a sense of smell that is so much better than ours.

That’s because it has around 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to our very measly six million. 

A service dog in the police and the armed forces is the most obvious example of scent being used as a cue.

In the service industry, a German Shepherd undergoes an olfactory training process to learn the smell of the explosives.

Then as trained when they smell the tiniest sample of an explosive, they sit.

The smell of that chemical is the cue to sit.

Which Type Of Cue Is Best? 

Researchers at the University of Naples looked at which cue resulted in the most reliable performance of 4 different behaviors:

1. Sit

2. Down

3. Stay

4. Come

They assessed fifteen dogs, and they asked both strangers and the dog’s owner to use different types of cues:

1. Verbal only

2. Visual only

3. Verbal and visual at the same time

The results showed that the dogs responded much better to visual cues than verbal cues, but the best results came from when the two were given simultaneously.

So, that might mean that if you needed your dog to lie down, then pointing to the floor and saying ‘down’ is probably the easiest way for your dog to understand what’s required.

Extra Reading: How To Train Your Dog Properly

verbal cue

The Poisoned Cue

Sometimes you can end up with your dog having a negative reaction to a cue.

When that happens, the cue then becomes known as a poisoned cue. 

So, there you are, taking your dog, Charlie, out for a run before you go to work. But Charlie doesn’t want to come back; he’s having way too much fun running around with his canine friends.

What then happens is:

‘Charlie, come.’

‘Charlie, come now!’


Finally, Charlie slinks back across to you, and you clip on his leash and head home.

The next day in the dog park, you again let Charlie off the lead.

When you call out ‘Charlie come,’ he does come back to you, but he does it very slowly, with this head held low.

Charlie has now connected the cue ‘come’ with you get getting cross, a negative reinforcement.

When he hears you say it, he’s expecting to get told off.

The cue ‘come’ has become poisoned.

How can you get rid of a poisoned cue?

One of the quickest ways to turn the situation around is to reteach the behavior with a brand-new cue.

It really doesn’t take long to do this as they already know the behavior; your dog is simply making the connection to the new cue.

For Charlie, that might involve using a treat or verbal praise to lure him close while using the verbal cue of ‘here’ rather than ‘come.’

Picking A Great Cue

Here are our top 4 tips for picking a great cue when you’re training your dog.

1. Make it unique

If two words sound very similar, it can be really easy for your dog to pick the wrong behavior.

This can often be a problem when you have a breed of dog like a Border Collie. They react very quickly with little impulse control unless they have been trained correctly.

That might mean that when you start to say the first letter of the verbal cue, they have already decided which behavior you’re looking for.

The problem is that you wanted a ‘sit,’ but your dog decided that you wanted a ‘spin,’ all by hearing the ‘s.’

So, before you start training, think of what word or hand signal you’re going to use.

And make sure it’s entirely different from other cues you might already use.

2. Be consistent

All too often, we do things like telling our dogs to get ‘down’ when they jump up, and then we ask them to go ‘down’ when we need them to lie down.

That then means the cue ‘down’ means two different things.

Now, our dogs are pretty clever, and they can associate a context with which behavior they should perform.

So, when you say ‘down’ when they’re jumping up, they understand that in that situation, the cue means to put all four paws on the floor.

But why make it more difficult for our dogs?

Using unique cues for each behavior increases the chance of your dog understanding what’s required and getting it right each time. 

Did you know that our dogs also pick up other cues from us, even we don’t realize we’re doing them?

Researchers found that our dogs pick up on our facial expressions, the direction of our glance, and our body posture.

So, if your dog seems confused by your cue, think about whether your body language might be confusing matters.

training cues

3. Make it easy to remember

There’s no need to stick to the standard ‘sit,’ ‘down,’ and ‘stay’ verbal cues.

You could use any word that you fancy after all your dog isn’t going to know any different!

However, to make sure that you’re consistent every time you use the cue. 

It needs to be something that you can easily remember and can give consistently every time.

And that’s precisely the same when you’re using a visual cue. 

If your recall cue is to wave your arms in the air, you need to make sure that you wave them, in the same way, each time.

4. Only use a cue for a known behavior

When we’re teaching our dogs a new behavior, there may be a few mistakes along the way. 

That means that if we start using the cue very early on in the training process, then there’s the possibility that our dog then offers an unwanted behavior.

As a result, your dog now thinks that the cue means something very different from what you had planned. 

So, you can see that it makes sense to ensure there’s a pretty good chance that your dog will offer the correct behavior before you add the cue in.

Final Thoughts

Now that you’ve read our training guide about the difference between a cue and command. The meaning of antecedent in dog training, different types of cues to use when training your dog, and how poisoned cues can lead to unwanted behaviors.

Were you able to take any concrete actions as a result?

If not, we encourage you to try out some of these tips for yourself! 

Remember that consistency is key; it’s important not only with what words or phrases are used but also with where they’re placed (visuals come before auditory). 

And don’t forget about olfactory (smell) cues too – dogs rely on their sense of smell more than ours do so incorporating scent into the mix will be an added bonus!

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