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How Do Dogs Learn? The Science Behind Physical and Verbal Cues

Ever wondered whether you should communicate with your dog through spoken commands or through visual cues? You are not alone.


You can see handlers guiding their dogs through challenges of a sheepwork trial or an agility course with solely verbal cues or what often looks like solely verbal cues. Dogs are able to learn an amazing amount of skills, and our own imagination is often the only limit of what we can teach them.

Having said that, understanding spoken language doesn’t come naturally for dogs. They communicate with each other through body language. The more natural something is for dogs, the quicker they learn it. The less natural something is, the more time and repetitions they need. That’s why teaching a dog to follow a verbal cue reliably takes more time than learning to follow body language.

But what is the science behind this, and what kind of signals are the most effective when you’re teaching your dog something new? A team of researchers from the Psychology Department at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, recently set out to determine this.

Specifically, they set out to look at what happens in the dog's brain when it is being taught a new association using different types of signals. The researchers were teaching the dog to discriminate which of two different signals was associated with a reward and which was not. The learning stimuli could involve smell, vision, or hearing. You can read more about the research methodology on Psychology Today.

In the end, the results were clear. The dogs learned the difference between the scent stimuli most quickly, followed by the difference between the visual stimuli. The verbal stimuli was the hardest for them to learn.

So where does that leave us?

You can definitely benefit from reliable verbal commands in many situations on an agility course, especially if you have physical restrictions, or if your dog is much faster than you are. However, not all of us are able to invest the time needed for training our dogs to obey verbal commands, or we’d rather save our dogs from the stress of hundreds of repetitions. Keeping the dog motivated for the amount of repetitions needed can also be a challenge.

The tricky thing with verbal commands is that the more you rely on them, the less you tend to pay attention to the other elements of handling. According to the research findings, it should be the other way around.

Verbal cues work best when they support your other handling elements. When other handling elements conflict with the verbal cues, the dog will follow what’s natural for it. You can teach the dog to ignore the handler’s body language and follow solely the verbal cues, but that takes even more repetitions. 

By learning to understand your dog’s perspective in agility, and communicating in the language your dog naturally understands, your body language, you can make reading the course easy for your dog!

What are your experiences of verbal and body language cues? Let us know in the comments below!

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Linda Kurfis3 months ago

I had in the past used verbal cues too much. A hard habit to break. That said, when needed like with obstacle to handler focus, timing is very important especially with a fast dog.

Niki Drage3 months ago

Very true!! And most importantly, your body language should always support the verbal!

Cornelia Kluck or Connielast year

I also have a disability and have competed with my one and only Assistance Dog, but I have not taught a lot of verbals. I cannot get them out in time, and it takes a long time to train them. I find it useful that my dog knows some of the obstacles by name, eg “up” is the A-frame, “walk-on” the dog walk, tunnel, seesaw and weaves are called what they are. I never named the hoop (tyre), but I taught my dog as a puppy to jump through a hand-held hoop as a party trick, and that gave him enough deductive reasoning to understand the obstacle on an agility course. The ascending double jump is visually challenging, therefore I used to call it “oxer” and it was an important verbal cue. It is an ANKC Standard obstacle, which is dangerously joined four ways at the bottom, therefore only the bars fall. I trained it with a jump alley and in jumping shutes to prevent injury when negotiated at high speed. A backside jump, I may or may not support with “behind”, which he more so knows as a command in Treibball, and it simply means to go behind an object and return to me facing me. It doesn’t suit a backside jump that is handled from the take-off side, but helps with distance. Although even with distance, it tends to be more useful to handle a line that takes him there rather than rely on a verbal. None of these verbals above have ever been especially trained or proofed with him, they are just a result of six years competition experience. Dogs learn, even if not specifically taught. The only strict verbals he had to learn were start line release and stopped contacts (whether that is still the desired method or not, the two-on/two-off hesitation certainly helps a disabled handler to regroup or get to a critical running point, even if it may not win competitions. Now - teaching and proofing just the start line stay and contact behaviour, actually proved to me in itself, how much human movement overrides a verbal command. In six years, I have not stopped retraining them and proofing them! It is actually the hardest discipline that I ever had to teach myself. For a fraction of a second, I have to be totallly motionless to make my release strictly verbal. The tiniest jerk (and I suffer from muscle spasticity) would release the dog, - down to facial movements, literally the blink of an eye. I had to teach my dog not even to lip read in the anticipation of the start line arousal. Needless to say that he still misses contacts every once in a while - although 8 years old and a titled agility champion since he was four years old. Another interesting aspect for us are alternate handlers. From multiple pathological bone fractures my seizure activity has increased and sees me largely too incapacitated to run the dog myself. To find alternate handlers, I try to stick to people, who handle OneMind Dogs style, but there are too few in Australia. I scribe at competitions with the dog at my feet, and the alternate handlers just take him into the ring, which is always the alternate ring (to avoid a conflict of interest). I usually to do not see him run, unless someone videos. I do not ever brief my handlers on verbals! My brief is “call his name for his attention and have fun with him”! I just warn them about the start line and give them a 2on/2off verbal, if they ask. All my alternate handlers are good runners and used to run with a fast dog. Not all of them run large dogs except for Panda. I have had handlers run him, who only ever saw him in his assistance dog harness, before they ran him for the first time. He’s had verbal commands from some handlers that he never heard in all his life, or he at times he didn’t have any verbal commands. He still found the correct obstacles, regardless what they were called or whether there was a discrimination. Not only that, he won or placed in the event! We used to have a judges’ team at a Festival of Agilty, where he had fast clean runs with interstate judges dressed formally without running shoes! Where does that leave the verbals? You could call the weavers or the A-frame anything you like, he’ll take them, if they were in front of him! You would need a strong body language cue or a severe rhythm change to divert him, if they were out of sequence! He is an Assistance Dog and verbals matter in every day life! I can ask him for the phone in any part of the house. I do not have to stand there and point at it. But verbals take a long time to teach to that reliable level. Plus they are easily undone, when speed and arousal is involved. Please do not forget that we are asking our dogs to understand more of our language than we’ll ever understand of theirs!

Gisela Griesserlast year

I'm finding this particularly true: "The tricky thing with verbal commands is that the more you rely on them, the less you tend to pay attention to the other elements of handling." Since I can only really focus on one thing, I have found it most effective to focus on my body language for most of my handling. I still use verbals to cue tunnels, contacts and weaves but when my physical cues are timely and correct, my dogs understand the lines I want them to take perfectly and they turn nice and tight without any verbals!

Mary Champagnelast year

I have always been a quiet handler on course. OneMind Dogs philosophy of handling makes sense. I was injured in March 2017 and found myself not being able to run or even do agility with my dogs I had a young puppy who learned to do agility slow to match my speed. I occasionally had other run him to show him he could run. I started teaching verbals to all 3 of my boys. If I am going to play agility, it is the only way. It has been over 1 1/2 years and we are now starting to come together as "new" teams. My 2 year old is also starting to run although he will occasionally slow down to match my speed. My dogs understand my verbals but my other handling elements have to match. The key is that I can do this at a distance. We are working on discriminations at a distance now. I am also a OneMind Dogs instructor. The thing I hear from students is that because they handle the OneMind Dogs way, they don't need verbals so why would they teach them. I say, you don't need them until you need them. I never predicted this would happen to me On a different note, they learn the verbal SQUIRREL almost instantaneously!

Diane T Pattersonlast year

I believe the most important message of this article is the third to last paragraph .... "Verbal cues work best when they support other handling elements." Dogs DO vocalize with each other, but body language and motion remain at the top of their "cue list." I am working with students now to train verbals (starting with the startline release), so that they have as many skills as possible. Enjoyed this article, and the research behind it.

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