28 February 2018

To gesture or not to gesture in dog training?

Are visual cues more effective than verbal cues in dog training?

Guest post by Sienna Taylor, MSc (Hartpury University Centre).

A Havanese dog fetches a ball. Science investigates whether visual or verbal cues work best
Photo: Dorottya Mathe (Shutterstock)

A new study by Anna Scandurra (University of Naples) et al. investigates whether visual cues as opposed to verbal cues are more effective when dogs are trained to fetch an item under four conditions: using only hand cues, using only verbal cues, using both hand and verbal cues and using contradictory hand and verbal cues.

It turns out that dogs responded better to visual hand gestures than verbal cues although speed of response was quicker when both hand and verbal cues were used together.

Many pet owners teach their dogs to respond to both visual and verbal cues, for example, an owner might ask their dog to lie on the floor by simply using the verbal command “Lie Down” or alternatively using a hand gesture such as pointing or perhaps a combination of both!  Whilst dogs do use vocalisations to communicate (such as attracting attention, with vocalisations usually being context specific) (Serpell, 2017), they communicate largely through the use of discrete body postures (Landsberg et al. 2013), both intra-specifically (dog-dog) and inter-specifically (human-dog).

Dogs are adept at responding to our gaze or if we nod (Kaminski and Nitzschner, 2013) or point towards a particular object (Lakatos et al. 2012).  Sometimes we find that when we ask a dog to verbally “Lie Down” the response is a blank look or an altogether different response!  Yet if we use a hand gesture such as point to the floor or use a combination of both verbal and visual cues the dog instantly lies down.  This more immediate response to a visual cue, even when in combination with a verbal cue, has often puzzled owners and begs the question are visual cues more effective in dog training than verbal cues or should we be using both?

The study by Scandurra et al. (2018) set out to test whether 13 pet dogs responded better to their owners using either visual or verbal cues alone (unimodal) or both visual and verbal cues (bimodal) which took into account both the dogs acute visual and auditory capabilities.

Dogs were trained to ensure they responded equally well to both verbal cues and visual hand gestures and were asked to perform a pre-test fetch task. Objects included a piece of wood, a plastic bottle and a pencil case.

Twenty four trials took place in the pre-test phase, eight trials used verbal cues only (spoken in Italian, with the voice command directing the dog to retrieve one of two items), followed by eight trials using hand gestures only (where the owner directed the dog by pointing to one of two items). A further eight trials used both verbal and visual cues (the owner directed the dog to one of the two items through the use of both verbal and visual cues at the same time).

Nine dogs met the requirements of the pre-test phase and were selected to take part in the final eight trials where a combination of both cues were used. However, this time the cues contradicted one another, for example when asking the dog to retrieve, the owner pointed at one object but named another.

Dogs were found to respond equally well to both verbal and visual cues when used on their own although, when both verbal and visual cues were given together, dogs were found to respond significantly more quickly to the task.  When dogs were given contradictory information, 78% of dogs (7 out of 9 dogs) chose the hand gesture. The remaining two dogs performed at a chance level and randomly chose to retrieve the verbally indicated or the object visually pointed at equally often.  What’s interesting is that none of the dogs preferred the verbal cue over the hand gesture.  This leads us to further question the importance of verbal cues to dogs.

How we use verbal communication (e.g. quality of spoken word) and also level of eye contact has been found to impact level of responsiveness in the dog. Fukuzawa et al. (2005) found that when a dog was asked to sit with the command played through a tape recorder, there was a significant decline in performance. It also took the dog longer to learn the command in the absence of lip or facial movements.  Similarly, when the person obscured their eyes by wearing sunglasses and the command was played through the tape, the dog’s responsiveness to the command also reduced.  However, when sunglasses were worn and a spoken verbal command was given no reduction in responsiveness was evident.  The authors concluded that eye contact is important to dogs but not in all contexts.  Fukuzawa et al. (2005) also found that effectiveness of command was reduced when a person’s back was turned.  This implies that body postures appear to be important to the dog in understanding signals as part of human-dog communication but may be context dependent.

Next time you use a cue, if the dog does not respond it is worth following up with a hand gesture to see if you get a better response!
About Sienna Taylor:

Sienna Taylor training her dog Bailey

Sienna Taylor FdSc, BSc (Hons), MSc, FHEA, is a Lecturer in Animal Behaviour and Welfare at Hartpury University Centre, Gloucestershire.  Her research interests include human-animal interactions and the use of olfactory enrichment in companion animals.  Sienna enjoys training her two year old Labrador Bailey and they are currently working towards their Grade 3 Gundog Test.

You can follow Sienna Taylor on Twitter: @Taylor5Sienna.

Fukuzawa, M., Mills, D.S. and Cooper, J.J. (2005) More than just a word: non-semantic command variables affect obedience in the domestic dog (Canis familiaris). Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 91(1), pp.129-141.
Kaminski, J. and Nitzschner, M. (2013) Do dogs get the point? A review of dog-human communication ability. Learning and Motivation. 44, pp. 294-302. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lmot.2013.05.001
Lakatos, G., Gácsi, M., Topál, J. and Miklósi, Á. (2012) Comprehension and utilization of pointing gestures and gazing in dog-human communication in relatively complex situations. Animal Cognition. 15, pp. 201-213.
Landsberg, G.M., Hunthausen, W.L. and Ackerman, L.J. (2012) Behavior Problems of the Dog and Cat, 3e.Oxford: Elsevier Health Sciences.
Scandurra, A., Alterisio, A., Aria, M., Vernese, R. and D’Aniello, B. (2018) Should I fetch one or the other? A study on dogs on the object choice in the bimodal contrasting paradigm. Animal Cognition. pp. 1-8.
Serpell, J. (2016) The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behavior and Interactions with People. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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  1. I've always found that if you give a dog mixed signals -- that is body and facial cues that do not match your verbal cues -- then the dog will respond to the body and facial cues, and ignore the verbal cue.
    The lesson to be learned from this, is that one must be very, very careful NOT to give the dog conflicting signals. Unfortunately this is very common in beginner dog trainers, and they tend then to get cross with the dog for 'disobeying' :-(

  2. I like my dogs to be bimodal. One command can help reinforce the other. However the mistake (for me as a trainer) is to teach using both commands at the same time. That becomes a pattern that where one component is missing, the command is (to the dog) incomplete and thus degrades both modalities. The way I think of it is, use one modality. If it fails, then and only then use the other. Repeat using modalities in reverse order, as the dog approaches conformance drop the strongest one, reward only the weakest one. I also teach that being aware of body position and other cues, a great example is where people bend forward and often with outstretched hand when saying 'COME'. Dog is learning the visual + verbal pattern means come. Then when the posture is not there the 'pattern' is incomplete. Thus both modalities are 'weak'. So clear, bold and concise (not too quick) hand/arm/facial gestures, being visual also aids your dog
    looking at you for 'cues' helping solve the cloth ear syndrome.


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