Does your dog listen or watch?

Humans love to talk! We use words to explain things, ask questions, and to communicate with those around us. It makes sense to try to use our words to communicate with our dogs too, but it may surprise you to learn just what cues your pet is picking up on.

When we teach our dog a new behaviour, we usually try to pair that action with a word. As our dog’s butt hits the ground we say “Sit!” and then say what a good dog they are for sitting. What many people fail to realise is that their dog may be paying more attention to what you are doing with your body.

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Wilbur sitting when given a hand signal

We talk all the time, and of all the words we say, relatively few have any significance to our pets. Some words become reliable predictors of fun activities (e.g. dinner, walkies), but for the most part our dogs can safely ignore our chit-chat without consequence. Our body language can be more reliable. If we move towards the fridge, a snack may be imminent. Putting on our shoes could mean time for a walk. It pays for our dogs to pay attention to what our body language is saying, as it is often their first hint as to what is coming next.

Let’s go back to teaching our dog to sit. Even though we may say “Sit!” as their butt hits the ground, how did we get them to sit in the first place? In most cases we moved our hand in a predictable gesture above their head. This may resemble the food lure most people initially used to teach sit. Some dogs even notice very subtle motions, such as us leaning our shoulders forward slightly as we ask them to sit. In the scheme of your dog’s day, paying attention to these things pays off better than keeping an ear out for a particular word. In fact, our body language and actions can be so significant that our dogs don’t actually pick up on the words at all, which is why when you repeat “sit, sit, SIT!” you may not get any response.

It can be very useful to teach our dogs to respond to verbal cues in training, and the good news is that it is actually quite simple. The important thing is the order that we offer our cues. To teach our dogs a new verbal cue, we first want to teach them the behaviour (using a food lure, target, shaping, etc). Then we can use the following method to add a new cue:

NEW CUE (e.g. “Sit”) – OLD CUE (e.g. hand signal) – REWARD

It is very important that the new verbal cue is offered first, followed by the old visual cue. If we give both cues simultaneously it is likely that your dog will focus more heavily on the visual cue (as that is how dogs communicate most easily). By offering the new cue first, your dog starts to learn that the new verbal cue consistently predicts the old cue, and they will begin to offer the correct behaviour.

If your dog does not respond correctly to a visual or verbal cue, chances are they haven’t yet learned it as well as you think. Take some time to go back to basics with them, and help them out by breaking the behaviour down. Consider if they are distracted, if you’ve practised in that situation before, and if you are adequately motivating them.

Below is a short video of Wilbur demonstrating some of his learned behaviours, offered on both visual and verbal cues. As a general rule he learns visual cues (hand signals) more quickly than verbal cues, but following the NEW CUE/OLD CUE method we have easily taught him both (he can even read flash cards for SIT and DOWN).

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