My 6-year-old son is receiving intensive speech therapy. He gets frustrated when our dog doesn’t respond when he asks him to sit. I don’t think the dog knows what he is saying, but I don’t want to tell him that as we are encouraging him to speak as much as possible. Any idea how to bridge the gap? ~ Sofie
Dogs communicate primarily through body language. It’s quite likely that you already use some sort of body-language cue to ask the dog to sit. Most people have a tendency to both verbally say a cue and do some sort of physical signal.
Figure out what signals your dog looks for. You may want to have a few solo practice sessions so that your dog will be good at a few simple tricks (e.g., sit, down, spin, and shake) before your son starts working with him.
Help your son practice these skills using the physical cue only (no words yet). Use amazing treats so that your dog thinks working with your son is the best game ever. When your dog is good at responding to your son’s physical cues, then you can encourage your son to use verbal cues as well.
Ask your son to say “sit,” and then do the physical cue for sit. (Stay actively involved at first so you can make sure the dog responds–perhaps by giving the physical cue again behind your son’s back.) When the verbal cue comes first, the dog will begin to anticipate the physical cue and may respond even before it occurs.
Soon your dog will sit when your son asks, even though your son’s words sound different from how the other family members say it. And if you continue have fun practice sessions with tasty treats, your dog may soon respond to your son better than he does to anyone else, which can be very exciting for a child.
Don’t have any idea what physical cues you use?
One simple way to figure out what kind of body language you use to communicate with your dog is to stand like a toy soldier, stiff with your arms at your side, and ask the dog to sit. If the dog doesn’t sit, relax your body and repeat the cue. What changed? Odds are that you nodded your head forward and moved one of your hands either upward or in a pointing motion at the dog. Notice what seems natural—that’s what your dog is watching for.