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How Dog Training Differs From Emailing

Outside the supermarket the other day, I walked past a man who was trying to get his dog to sit. He said, “Sit. Sit. Sit. Sit, Rudy. Sit.” Each word was followed by a short pause during which the man’s dog, an American Staffordshire Terrier, did not sit.

I have learned not to butt in when my help has not been requested. But I wanted to tell the man that he was teaching his dog the command “Sit. Sit. Sit. Sit, Rudy. Sit.” Dog owners should say a command just once, “Rudy, sit.” If the dog does not sit, then the owner should put the dog in a sit position. That way, the dog learns the command “Sit” rather than “Sit. Sit. Sit. Sit. Sit.”

Email readers are different from dogs. Readers of email need to receive the command–the request for action–repeatedly in order to pay attention to it and respond the right way.

Take this example:

Subject: Agenda Items for Jan. 27 Planning Meeting: Please Submit by Jan. 21 [Sit.]

Hello everyone,

By Wednesday, Jan. 21, please send me your agenda items for the Jan. 27 planning meeting. [Sit.]

If I receive your items by Jan. 21 [Sit], I will include them in the final agenda I send out on Jan. 22.

I look forward to receiving your agenda items. [Sit.]


Sit. Sit. Sit. Sit. If the email writer had said “Sit” only once–let’s say in the first sentence–the reader would likely overlook the request while speeding through an email inbox. The specific request for action needs to appear in the subject AND in the first sentence AND typically in one other place in the message.

Do you agree about this difference between dog training and email communicating? Feel free to extend the analogy.


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

8 comments on “How Dog Training Differs From Emailing”

  • Too many words. If people are not competent enough to do their jobs, then the sooner this is spotted the better.

    As for dogs, we have two labradoodles aged 18 months. They know the command ‘sit’ and will sit when asked to, but at this young age, they can often have their heads occupied with looking at something else (butterflies, bird shadows) and may need ‘sit… sit…’ before they realise they’re meant to do something. I’m reliably told by dog trainers that this will improve by aged 3.

  • I don’t know…. I agree with the idea one should repeat the request: include it in the subject line and in the first line of the email only. I’m not sure about all the repetition, though. It sounds a little remedial.

    About dog training, try it with basenjis for a real ‘treat’!

  • My school of communication taught that 80% of the responsibility for a message rests with the sender. Yes, the receiver has to be paying attention, but I would suggest a pragmatic approach. If you discover that issuing your “sit command” once does not result in compliance, your message is failing–a problem that lies predominantly on you. You can either take responsibility for the failure and seek solutions, or you can blame the recipients and continue to fail.

  • I echo Jim’s comment above regarding Hilde’s view that the fault lies with the reader. In my position as a customer service representative at a busy manufacturing company, I don’t have time to blame my readers- I just need answers to my questions so that I can get my work done:-)

  • An interesting analogy, Lynn. Some dogs respond to a treat during training and others need a little tap on the nose do they not? Taking that to email etiquette would be interesting! “Come to my meeting on x/x/xx with what I need and get first choice of biscuit. Forget and you will receive no biscuits!”. I guess it comes down to style in the end and probably how you were trained when still a puppy at work.

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