Cues vs. Commands: What’s the Difference?

Cues and commands sound similar but they are used in very different ways. So what’s the difference between the two? And how do you use them effectively?

So, Cues Vs Commands, what’s the difference?

Both cues and commands can be effective in training your dog, but they have different strengths and weaknesses.

In dog training, a cue is a signal that you’d like your dog to do something. Cues are typically quite flexible. Force free trainers like them because they want their dog to feel like they make their own choices. But cues can occur all the time, they don’t just come from you.

A command is more like an order which cannot be ignored. Commands are more precise and can be used to control your dog’s behavior in specific situations. Commands often get criticised due to their controlling nature.

But not all instructions can be optional. Can they?

Confusion between cues and commands

If you do some research into cues and commands you might end up more confused that you started. Everyone seems to have their own definitions. Many articles differentiate between the two by saying that commands are simply cues with correction. With a cue the dog chooses to follow your request because they want the reward, whereas with a command the dog follows due to fear of a correction.

This shows a misunderstanding of the word correction. Correction is merely changing an incorrect response into a correct one. This could be by using a long line to assist in a perfect recall, using a treat to lure your dog into the right position, or simply trying again.

Cues vs. Commands: What’s the Difference? Wilma is following a cue to walk to heel.

What they understand by correction is far more ominous, they are talking about punishment. You should never use punishment or aversion to train a dog, but using correction is essential for a reliable and confident response. If you don’t help your dog get things right each time, how will he ever be sure what he’s supposed to do.

Cues work great when you are creating new behaviours

Almost anything can be a cue. We might intentionally create our own set of cues such as body movements, gestures, and words. Our dogs will learn to associate these actions with behaviours they find rewarding.

So we might use a gesture to indicate we’d like the dog to walk to heel. This could be a hand on a pocket or holding the lead in a certain way. The dog recognises this cue and responds by walking beside you, hopefully. Your dog might also respond to a hand in the pocket as a cue for an upcoming recall. If they want the treat, this dog will head straight for you any time you put your hand in your pocket – beware, they might also look for this cue in other people they meet that don’t have treats, or even dogs! If they miss the cue, the recall command will come next!

Your dog will also have figured out his own set of cues. For example, the sound of a door bell might be a cue to run to the front door. A particular w-o-r-d might be a cue to go to the lead cupboard. And the fridge door opening might be a cue for a tasty snack. Even the end credits of a tv programme can be a cue for something – especially if you always walk your dog or feed them after your favourite programme! You didn’t teach these cues intentionally, but they do exist. If you want to change them then you just have to choose an alternative, help them to achieve that and make sure they get a suitable reward for doing your preferred behaviour.

If you were working on a different response to the door bell, you could ring the bell, wait for them to “sit” for example, and then offer a treat. Now repeat this until it becomes the new default!

Dogs also have their own built-in cues. For example, when they go into play mode, another animal running away means “chasies”, or if a dog turns their head to the side they stop what they are doing

So what happens when two cues happen at the same time?

As we know, dogs follow cues for the reward. So, in this instance, your dog will choose the situation that benefits him the most. This might be because one is more fun than another, or one comes with more free time, or maybe a tasty treat. In this case, your cue may not be enough, you’ll need a command.

For example, if your dog is running off lead in the park and a deer shows up, you probably don’t want your dog to choose whether he follows your come get a treat cue, or the deer’s cue to chase. You want them to recall to you straight away. If he follows the “chase me” cue he could become a danger to himself, the deer, or others, depending on how the situation escalates.

Commands can also be used to correct unwanted behavior. For example, if your dog is chewing on something they’re not supposed to, you might give them the command “leave it.” An emergency “stop” is also not optional and should always over ride any cues.

When two cues happen at the same time, your dog will choose the most advantageous!

He doesn’t know what you know!

It would be different if dogs were able to process all the facts. But, he doesn’t know enough about his environment to make good decisions. he doesn’t know that he could choke on discarded chicken bones, or that a farmer might shoot him for running through his field. When your dog does not know what you know, he can’t make an informed decision, so this is no time for options.

Teaching a command

As we know, a command is meant to be non-negotiable. So, when you teach a command, you must make sure to use it consistently, and to be clear about what you want your dog to do. You must also make it rewarding and fun. Just because it is a command, doesn’t mean the dog shouldn’t enjoy doing it! You should also test your command safely, in a variety of situations, before trusting the dog to respond to it automatically

This is especially true of a recall. You might have mastered the command in quiet places, or well known areas. But, your dog must be able to do it anywhere, no matter what is happening. So, make sure to test it out while your dog is safely on a long line, before trusting them off lead! If you are struggling with this, my 30 day recall course shows you how to do make your recall reliable. You can also follow the basic idea when teaching other commands.


Using cues and commands well can help you live better with your dog. By using commands consistently and sparingly, you can help keep your dog safe, and give more freedom. But, teaching a variety of cues means you’ll be able to communicate better with your dog, and you’ll both live much more happily together!

Are you struggling with your dogs behaviour?

Private Dog Behaviour Consultations are currently available in the Dundee area and beyond, or via zoom. If you are looking for help solving your dogs behaviour and training problems, then please get in touch!


I have more than 15 years experience solving all kinds of canine behaviour problems, at home and in rescue. A bad experience with a old fashioned dog trainer inspired me to learn more about dog behaviour, and it is because of him, that I wall never use harsh methods when training and rehabilitating dogs.

I work privately with clients in Dundee and the surrounding area with dogs of all ages, breeds and issues including anxiety, aggression and hyperactivity.

In 2009 I was proud to publish a book about dog behaviour and training. How to be the Perfect Pack Leader (by Caroline Jenkins) remains popular today and a follow up is expected very shortly.

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