Jump to section
It's likely that every dog owner wishes their pup could talk. I mean, who wouldn't want Fido to understand why you have to leave for work every day, or why going to the vet is really for his own good? Who wouldn't want to find out what he did at home all day, or what his name for you is? We can't be the only ones who have one-sided conversations with our pets...
Unfortunately Google hasn't introduced dog-to-human translation just yet, but for now, how about teaching your small dog how to mimic understanding and responding to your questions? If nothing else, it's better than having a one-sided conversation, and when played up in front of an audience ("Do you want me to give your dinner to the cat?"), it can definitely earn some laughs.
Teaching your small dog to shake his head in response to a 'yes' or 'no' question is a fun behavior to add to his roster of tricks. This behavior can be learned by dogs of any size in less than a week, though teaching the skill to your small dog will require getting on his level and downsizing your hand gestures.
What You'll Need:
Treats: positive reinforcement is key when teaching your pup a new behavior. Choose a special treat that gets his attention and that he'll be willing to work for. Think dried liver, a piece of cheese, peanut butter, etc.--the higher the reward, the more he'll want to perform for it.
Clicker: if your dog is familiar with clicker-training, a clicker can be used to signify what behavior you are looking for. (See more on that method below).
Things to Note:
It is best to start training in a quiet indoor environment with little chance for distraction, such as other pets or unexpected noises.
Training is best accomplished one-on-one, rather than with multiple owners. Full attention and eye contact with your small dog are key to effective training.
Don't let your dog get bored or tired out by training. If your dog loses focus after repeating a behavior, end the training session, give him praise, and resume training at another time. Keep training fun and fresh, and limit it to multiple sessions of 5-10 minutes over several days.
The Hand Signal Method
Set the stage for success
Make sure that your dog is calm and attentive. Ask him to sit in front of you and make eye contact. If he's a really little guy, you might want to consider getting down on your knees or sitting cross-legged in front of him for better eye contact and focus.
Place a treat in your fist
Place his special treat in your hand and make a closed fist around it. Make sure your dog sees this - now you'll really have his attention!
Move your fist from left to right
Slowly move your fist from left to right. Because your pup is small, this movement should be slightly less exaggerated than you might do for a bigger dog. Your dog should follow the movement with his head, from side to side. When he does, reward him with the treat. Make sure he follows your fist with his whole head and not just his eyes!
Repeat until he is consistently performing the side-to-side head movement, following your fist.
Try without the treat
Now try the side-to-side motion again without the treat in your fist. If your dog follows the motion correctly, treat him immediately from your other hand. If he does not make the connection, you may need to take a step back and repeat the signal with his treat in-hand. Be patient! This step represents the biggest leap in logic - it might take practice for your dog to "get" what you're asking of him.
Streamline your hand signal
Practice this step multiple times, being sure to treat immediately when your dog correctly shakes his head. Try slowly minimizing your hand signal to the point where you move your fist just slightly from side to side, or with your index finger raised in an 'uh-uh' gesture. This will make the trick appear altogether more seamless.
Ask a question
Your hand signal can now be preceded by a 'yes' or 'no' question, which Fido will answer in the negative.
The Clicker Method
Use a clicker
Clicker training is a way to let your dog know that he has performed a desired behavior and is going to be rewarded for it. If he is used to clicker-training, he can quickly come to associate an action with what you want him to do.
Get your dog's full attention
With clicker in hand, ask your dog to sit and make sure that he is attentive. If he is very small, you might want to get down on your knees or sit in front of him so he can better see your hands and make eye contact with you.
Make a fist
Holding the clicker in one hand, wrap your other hand in a fist around your dog's favorite treat. Make sure he sees you do this.
Move your fist from side to side
Move your fist from side to side in a slightly exaggerated movement (only as far as it takes for your small dog to convincingly shake his head - less exaggerated than you would do for a larger dog). When your dog follows your fist with his head, immediately click the clicker to inform him that he's done what you wanted. Be sure to give him the treat after you've clicked.
Repeat this step until your dog is consistently shaking his head in response to the movement of your fist.
Remove the treat from your fist
Try the side-to-side motion again without the treat in your fist. Be sure to acknowledge correct behavior when your dog does it by immediately clicking the clicker and treating from your other hand. Be patient if your dog does not progress to this step right away - you might have to go back to using the treat in your fist.
Minimize your hand signal
Try slowly reducing your hand signal to the point where you move your fist only slightly from side to side, or with your index finger raised in an 'uh-uh' gesture. This will make the final trick look more natural. Continue to click when your dog performs the head shake correctly, and follow with a treat. Remember, to your dog, the click means good behavior, which equals a treat.
Ask a 'yes' or 'no' question
Precede your hand signal with a 'yes' or 'no' question. You should be able to ask your dog to perform the behavior now without the clicker, but be sure to praise him when he gets it right and to treat intermittently to encourage him to want to continue performing his new trick.
The Verbal Command Method
Get your dog's attention
Ask your dog to sit and make sure that he is making eye contact with you. With small dogs, you may want to sit rather than stand, to be on his level. When your dog is fully attentive, start your training.
Make a fist around a treat
Have your dog watch as you close your fist around his favorite kind of treat.
Move your fist and give your command
Move your fist from left to right slowly while also giving a short verbal command, such as "say no way." Be sure to be consistent in the words and tone that you use from here on out. Reward your dog with the treat when he correctly follows the movement of your fist with his head.
Repeat this step until your dog is regularly following your fist with his whole head (not just his eyes) - you want to move your fist from side-to-side the distance that will cause him to appear to be shaking his head 'no.' Be sure to give the same verbal command before every gesture with your fist.
Remove the treat
Give your command and move your fist from left to right without the treat enclosed in your fist. Your dog should follow it anyway - if he does, give him a treat from your other hand; if not, you may have to practice more with the treat in-fist.
Remove your hand signal
Once your dog is consistently shaking his head, try minimizing and then completely removing the hand-signal, so that he responds to your verbal command alone. Be sure to treat intermittently when he performs the behavior correctly to keep him interested.
Ask a question before giving your command
Finally, you can ask a 'yes' or 'no' question before giving the verbal command. Fido says, 'no way!'
By Michelle Anne Olsen
Published: 01/22/2018, edited: 01/08/2021