When I am teaching new behaviors, the first cue we work on usually derives from movements related to the behavior being taught. Most families will want to go on to teach at least one additional cue (often a verbal cue, which I will use for examples in this post) for many behaviors. Personally, I prefer for my dogs to have a verbal cue and hand signal for most behaviors. However, the most obvious verbal cue may not always be the best one. Humans tend to prefer cues that “make sense.” Since dogs don’t share our language, they are not concerned about these elements. Here are a few elements of good cues:
“Supercalifragilistic” might be a lot of fun to say, but it doesn’t make a very good cue. It’s so long that it’s hard to say consistently, and it’s likely to be hard for your dog to distinguish as a cue rather than a collection of syllables. One or two syllable words are usually best. The same principle applies to hand signals which should be short and clear.
Even words that meet the clarity standard may not be sufficiently distinct from other cues to work well. For example, when I first started training Sirius Black, I tried to use “Spin” for a turn around cue. However, at least as said by me, the cue sounded too much like “Sit,” so a sit is what I got. Switching to another one syllable word, “Turn” had a much better result. The most common issues I see with this are around the word “Down” when used for both lie down and off behaviors.
Even the most clear and distinctive cue won’t do you any good if you can’t remember what it is. In theory, nonsense or completely unrelated words work just as well as words with a logical connection to the behavior, but that’s only true if you remember which word cued which behavior. Wondering “was rhubarb the cue for sit or down?” is not going to move you in the right direction.