Hey there, agility enthusiasts! Today, we’re discussing the role of verbals in dog agility and specifically, in the OneMind Dogs method. If you’ve ever wondered whether or not OneMind Dogs handlers use verbal cues, you’re not alone.
When it comes to guiding dogs through an agility course, you might have noticed some handlers relying heavily on spoken commands. But did you know that understanding spoken language isn’t a dog’s strong suit? Dogs communicate with each other through body language, which comes naturally to them. The more natural something is for dogs, the faster they learn it. On the flip side, when it’s less natural, it requires more time and repetitions.
However, agility courses are becoming faster and longer and sometimes, handlers just can’t be where they would like to be to support the dog. One of the core concepts behind OneMind Dogs is that “Learning is infinite”. The founders of the OneMind Dogs method are constantly learning — from dogs, other trainers, judges, each other and more. As a result, the handling and training techniques behind the OneMind Dogs method are constantly evolving. This means that our method stays relevant for general dog owners and agility competitors alike.
How dogs understand verbals
In a 2018 study, researchers from Emory University were particularly interested in how dogs respond to different types of signals when being taught new associations. The signals involved smell, vision, and hearing. The results were crystal clear: dogs grasped scent-based stimuli the fastest, followed by visual cues. Verbals, on the other hand, posed the most significant challenge.
The researchers concluded, “Our results suggest that the human inclination for verbal communication appears to be based on human preferences, rather than the dog’s innate aptitude.” They also stated that “pet and working dog training programs would likely become more productive, with accelerated learning rates for the dog, if commands were introduced via hand signals or other physical modes of communication.”
Further studies have shown that dogs use one dominant sense at a time. Similarly, we have noticed that it’s easier for dogs to focus on verbal cues when the handler is positioned behind them or laterally to the side without as much movement. When the handler is in front or running hard close to the dog, the dog becomes highly attuned to the handler’s movements and position, making it harder to listen to verbal commands.
OneMind Dogs method and the use of verbals in agility
So, where does this leave us in the world of agility training? Reliable verbals can indeed be beneficial in many situations. Especially if you have physical limitations or a lightning-fast dog. However, not everyone can invest the extensive time and repetitions needed to train dogs for independent verbal commands.
At OneMind Dogs, we believe that verbal cues should complement your other handling elements. When your verbals conflict with your body language, your dog tends to follow what’s more natural for them. It’s possible to teach your dog to disregard your body language and rely solely on verbal cues. But this requires a lot of repetitions, and if you correct the dog for instinctively following your body language, they may stop reacting naturally to your body language cues in the long run.
Even if you are behind your dog, you can still use your other main handling elements such as your Motion, Position, Eyes and Chest. Dogs have excellent peripheral vision. If your dog appears to be ignoring your verbal commands, check and see if your other elements support the verbal, rather than repeating the exercise multiple times to “make” the dog listen. Don’t forget that timing is key. Give the cue well before your dog reaches an obstacle to allow them ample time to react.
In the OneMind Dogs method, we usually don’t use directional commands or commands that the dog must follow without the support of our handling. Instead, our agility verbals focus on what happens between obstacles. Like “slow down,” “go forward,” and “connect”. Many of our coaches and students do use verbal cues to support the handling for specific techniques. For example, saying “Flick” when they handle a Flick. So eventually the dog puts the two together and the verbal becomes a strong supporting element to the handling, rather than an independently taught cue. We make an exception when it comes to contact-tunnel discrimination where we teach a verbal discrimination cue.
The challenge with verbals in agility
The challenge with verbals in agility is that the more you depend on them, the less you’re inclined to pay attention to other handling elements. This is counterproductive because dogs naturally read your body language, but they don’t naturally understand your words. Sometimes, even your tone of voice can carry more weight with your dog than the words you’re using.
Keep in mind that overly complex or too many verbal commands can overwhelm your dog. It’s crucial to ensure that your verbal commands serve a specific purpose and achieve the desired results. Think about your own team and what verbals you really need. What commands are worth spending the required time training? If you have a very fast dog and you can’t run fast yourself, you will likely need more verbals than someone who can easily keep up with their dog and be at every obstacle. For example, OneMind Dogs method creator Janita Leinonen says “I can get through all courses so far with obstacle names like tunnel and weaves and commands like dog’s name, here, go around, turn away, go forward and slow-down”. There’s no point training a verbal you’ll never need.
Determining whether your dog truly understands a verbal cue, especially for obstacle commands like “weave” is also an important consideration. Can your dog follow the cue when you stand still, run at top speed, run backwards, or when there’s a potential distraction nearby? Can they make the right choice consistently, even in either-or training scenarios?
The dog’s point of view in agility
Another thing to consider is the dog’s lines and point of view in agility. Especially when using verbal commands. For example, in the map below, from your perspective, the jump after the tunnel looks like a backside. So you might give your backside cue there. However, if the dog comes out of the tunnel at speed, they will already be on the take-off side of the jump. If you then give your backside cue, your dog might get confused and come into the landing side of the jump instead. As that is now the “backside” from the dog’s perspective.
If you have taught your dog that your backside cue means they must always go to the other side of the jump, you need to very carefully read a course and see where your dog will be when you give your cue, to make sure that it makes sense for the dog. This is also the case with many other verbals in agility, so make sure you think carefully through any verbals that you decide to use. Think about what they actually mean from the dog’s perspective.
Your dog is the star of the team
Don’t forget, you are the one who chooses to do agility. Your dog is coming along for the ride! Generally speaking, dogs truly enjoy playing agility but we must remember to always consider what is best for them. Be ready to adapt to your dog, some dogs don’t easily respond to verbals. Rather than thinking your dog can’t learn something, it’s important to consider what your individual dog needs and respond accordingly.
As part of our agility training, we sometimes encourage students to navigate courses silently, without any verbal cues. This helps you realize that your dog can successfully navigate the course based on other elements of handling. You don’t have to handle your dog in silence all the time. But try not to rely solely on verbal commands.
Above all, don’t get upset with your dog if they seem to be getting it wrong. Try to stop and work out why your dog is responding a certain way, and see if your handling elements are all supporting the same thing for the dog. Need help? Send us a video and we’ll give you more insight from your dog’s perspective!
In summary, the OneMind Dogs method focuses on understanding the dog’s perspective and on teaching handlers to communicate in the language dogs naturally understand—body language. Our method is flexible and easily adaptable to all kinds of dogs and handlers, nothing is ever set in stone. Verbal cues definitely have their place within our method, but they should support, not override, your other handling elements. It’s all about finding the right balance and what works best for you and your dog.
Happy training 🐾