Remembering that dogs are experts at learning sequences and picking up on the most subtle signals from us we often become frustrated when dogs who we thought knew the verbal cue for a behaviour simply looked at us in that way dogs have when they simply do not understand what we’re asking them to do.
Probably the most common unintentional cue is the hand signal for “Sit”. Because this is the position of the hand when luring the sit it automatically becomes the hand signal. Even if you say “Sit” when giving the hand signal the dog is so focussed on the hand signal that the verbal cue becomes diluted and most times if you take away the hand signal the dog will not respond to the verbal cue but simply looks puzzled, until the hand comes out.
Having a hand signal to cue behaviour is often desirable but it is definitely advantageous to have both. It is a simple matter to teach the dog the verbal cue. All you have to do is to say the word “Sit” BEFORE the hand signal and then gradually fade the hand signal. With repetition your dog will learn to sit immediately he hears the word “Sit” and, if silence is what you require, he will also sit when he sees your hand signal.
Lying down is another behaviour where it is necessary to modify visual cues in order to teach the dog the verbal cue. Because we often either bend over the dog or crouch next to him when luring him into position this large body movement also becomes a signal. So it is not only the hand signal you have to fade, but also the bending or crouch.
Another unintentional signal I saw in class the other day was the handler stepping towards the dog in order to give him the signal for sit. Sometimes as an instructor one is so interested in watching the dog that what the handler does sometimes goes unnoticed. I only realised what was happening when I used the handler’s dog to demonstrate building duration for the sit and when I asked the dog to “Sit” which I normally do with my hands at my sides he looked at me blankly. I tried again, but with no response except the blank look. That’s when I realised that he actually did not know the cue for “Sit”, even though he appeared to be very fluent with that particular behaviour.
When I asked the handler to demonstrate the sit for me I saw that the dog, instead of responding to the verbal cue, was actually responding to the visual cue of the handler stepping towards him, even though she was saying “Sit” as she did so. In fact, when I asked her to simply step towards the dog without saying the word “Sit”, he immediately dropped into position.
After a couple of trials of preceding the step with the verbal cue and then fading the step, the dog was sitting enthusiastically to the word “Sit” with the handler staying in position.
What this brought home to me was that as instructors we overlook some of the most obvious reasons for non compliance from the dog, not because we are careless but because even though we are looking, we do not always see… It is also clear that incorporating these signals into our communication with the dog they become so ingrained that we do not even realise we are doing them. This is why even the most experienced handlers will benefit from the fresh eyes of a coach – or video camera.