Choosing Kindly – An Excerpt

This week’s Science Dog essay is an excerpt from Chapter 8 of  “Dog Smart: Evidence-based Training with The Science Dog“.

I introduced the previous chapter with a story about starting each orientation class at AutumnGold with a version of the training game. While I emphasized that our students are usually impressed by these demonstrations and immediately catch on to the power of positive reinforcement, I would be remiss to not mention that we do see the occasional “frownie-face” in the audience during these demonstrations.

What I am referring to is the human version of this:

That face, human form, tells us that the student expressing it is not convinced and is usually taking umbrage with the use of food treats to train dogs. Mr. or Ms. Frownie-face invariably raises a hand to utter some version of the following:

“I don’t want to use food with my dog to train him because I want him to work for me out of love [or respect, or because I am alpha, or because I am King Tut, ruler of the world]”

Okay, maybe I made that last bit up. But you get the picture.

While we get the frownie-face and the resistance that accompanies it less frequently than in the past (thank you positive trainers!), we still see it now and again. So, in this chapter we explore evidence for staying, as much as possible, within the positive reinforcement (+R) quadrant of Skinner’s four consequences. I also will provide a means for communicating this information to the doubting Joes, Josephines and Frownie-faces of the world when you encounter them as clients, in classes, or as your neighbors.

Training in the +R Quadrant: I don’t think it is an outrageous claim to assert that the vast majority of people do not want to harm their dogs, either physically or emotionally, in order to train them. Unfortunately, a substantial number of dog owners continue to think that using punishment is the only effective and reliable way to train dogs. These beliefs may arise from continued reliance upon “dog-as-wolf” myths that tell owners they must establish dominance over their dogs, or upon the view that using positive reinforcers in training is synonymous with bribing. (These beliefs are false, as Joe finds out at the end of this chapter). For now though, let’s look at what we know to be true about the aversive control of behavior, commonly referred to as “correction-based” training, versus training methods that focus primarily on positive reinforcement, commonly referred to as “reward-based” training.

Correction-Based Training: Aversive training methods, even if “balanced” with positive reinforcement, rely upon a dog’s natural desire to avoid pain and discomfort. The dog pulls forward into his leash; a collar jerk occurs; the dog moves back into a loose-lead heel position to avoid the discomfort. If a consequence is not sufficiently unpleasant, the dog has no reason to change his behavior to avoid it and learning does not occur. Therefore, by its very definition, a training approach that relies partially or fully on aversive consequences involves causing some level of discomfort or pain to the dog.

In addition to the discomfort that this approach relies upon, there are emotional costs. The basic emotions associated with pain and discomfort in dogs (as in humans) are fear and anxiety. Although proponents of correction-based methods argue that anxiety and fear can be minimized by using the mildest intensity of an aversive that is necessary, there is no evidence that such a level exists. Rather, all of the studies that have examined the use of aversives to control behavior in dogs have reported signs of stress and/or fear as direct results of these training methods (see following section in this chapter for details).

A third problem with reliance upon aversives in dog training is that the exact nature of a dog’s response is not always predictable. Although some dogs move away from an aversive stimulus if there is an escape route available (for example, a dog stops pulling into a corrective collar), others may freeze in place, panic, attempt to run away, or become aggressive. As a result, the risk is that the response of the dog is not always what was intended by the trainer. This is a common problem because applying an aversive only provides the dog with information about what NOT to do, but does not provide information about what TO do. Essentially, the dog is forced to learn through the process of elimination. Negative reinforcement relies on the dog’s ability to select the desired behavior that will allow her to escape or avoid the aversive. Because a variety of behaviors are often equally successful in avoiding an unpleasant consequence – for example, running away or showing aggression – the behavior that is elicited each time a correction is applied may not be the behavior that the trainer was expecting to see.

Finally, because stress is often introduced with the use of negative reinforcement and punishment, the use of correction-based training as a humane approach to training is questionable. In addition to the potential for intentional or unintentional abuse, aversives that are associated with the owner have the potential for damaging the relationship between the dog and his owner. The overuse of aversives or using corrections that are too harsh can cause generalized fear and avoidance as the dog may learn that one behavior that will allow him to avoid discomfort and fear is to simply avoid being near his owner.

No one wants this. Why take the chance when there are better ways? (In the remainder of this chapter, we explore these better ways along with the evidence that supports their use).

“Dog Smart: Evidence-based Training with The Science Dog” by Linda P. Case (2018)

 

 

 

Becoming Dog Smart

This week’s blog is an excerpt from Linda Case’s newest Science Dog book,

Dog Smart: Evidence-based Training with The Science Dog.”

I grew up in an animal-loving family. As a young child, I had an auspicious start to pet ownership with Beany the Bird, a parakeet who I trained to fly from his cage to land on top of my head. As a pre-teen, Shelley the Sheltie joined our family, followed shortly thereafter by my horse, Hickory. (Clearly, alliteration and I share a long history). I trained Shelley in 4-H and competed with her in 4-H dog shows and AKC obedience trials. By my teen years, my mom was training and showing her own dogs, first a Belgian Tervuren named Tina and eventually a succession of Border Collies. We shared many years of traveling around the east coast and Midwest together to dog shows, training seminars and conferences. I have wonderful memories of those shared adventures and of our love of dogs. I would not change a thing.

Well, okay. I might change one thing.

I started training dogs in the early 1970’s. In those years, established dog training methods involved choke collars, corrections, and very generous use of the word “NO!.” Another popular aversive was that throat-clearing, grandpa-in-the-bathroom, “EEHHHH” sound.

REALLY? WHO WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR INVENTING THAT?

These methods were standard and accepted training practice, originally developed by military trainers during WWII.

Never look ’em in the eye: Here are two examples from those early training years. When I first began training Shelley in 4-H, the club leader strictly informed her budding group of young trainers that we must “never look our dogs in the eye.” Rather we were instructed to stare out into space, at a spot located somewhere above the dog’s head. I guess the premise was that my sweet and gentle Shetland Sheepdog would suddenly revert back to her wolf-like ancestor and launch for my throat should I make the error of making eye contact and thus challenge her status. A few years later, I attended a weekend seminar with my mom in which the presenter, a nationally recognized obedience competitor, instructed his students to yank on a long lead attached to their dog’s choke collar, immediately after yelling “COME!” The collar correction was intended to ensure that their dogs came running as quickly as possible. This was a time during which dogs were assumed to be in a constant battle for dominance with their owners, negative reinforcement and punishment reigned in dog training, and the use of food was viewed as bribery or even worse “cheating.” Luckily, just a few years later, around the mid-80’s, things began to change for the better for dogs – and for trainers.

Thank you, Karen Pryor: After finishing my undergraduate degree, getting married, and adding two Golden Retrievers to our family, Mike and I spent four pre-graduate school years moving around the East Coast as Mike completed his ROTC commitment to the Navy. (They had very generously paid for his engineering education at Cornell, so he owed them a bit of time in return). During our time in Massachusetts, I was lucky enough to become friends with a group of dog trainers who were as passionate as I was about dogs and training. We would meet regularly to train and walk our dogs together in area parks. One day, one of these friends excitedly showed up with a new training book in hand. This book was “Don’t Shoot the Dog” by Karen Pryor. We all read it. Devoured it, really.

As dog trainers, we never looked back.

The era of reward-based training methods had begun. Karen’s book was based on the science of behaviorism, encouraged positive reinforcement and strongly discouraged punishment. She promoted using food treats as a primary reinforcer and introduced the concept of using a marker word as a conditioned reinforcer. Karen’s seminal book and those that followed caused a paradigm shift in thinking and led to the development of an entirely new philosophy of dog training. Out went confrontational and correction-based methods that assumed dogs must be dominated to be trained and in came a gentler, kinder approach to training that also happened to be firmly grounded in learning theory and the behavioral sciences.

Animal rights, animal consciousness and social cognition: The changes of the 1980’s were followed by another remarkable development – this time in the academic world. After decades of being completely ignored in almost all fields of scientific study, the domestic dog was suddenly becoming a hot topic for scientists in a host of disciplines. It began with programs in canine and feline nutrition (upon which my own graduate studies centered), and was rapidly followed by studies of the evolutionary history and domestication of dogs, by new examinations of canine behavior that challenged previously accepted dog-as-wolf archetypes, and most recently, with studies of the dog’s unique talents in social cognition and emotional complexities. Although not focusing on dogs per se, the 1990’s also witnessed the serious philosophical consideration of animal consciousness, animal welfare and animal rights at universities around the world.

Collectively, these many areas of study expanded our understanding of and appreciation for the inner mental lives of non-human animals and directly challenged many long-held beliefs about how we should view and treat other animals, including dogs. While in graduate school and later, when teaching at the university, I read and studied the work of these scientists and philosophers. I brought their studies to my students for review, for group discussions, and as examples to practice their critical thinking skills. More personally, the evidence for complex animal minds and the arguments for changes in the ways that society has traditionally viewed animals had the effect of further modifying how I lived with, trained, and cared for my own dogs.

AutumnGold: In 1989, Mike and I built a dog training facility on the land adjacent to our home and opened AutumnGold Dog Training Center. I had just started teaching in the Companion Animal Science program in the University of Illinois. I taught undergraduates during the day and obedience classes at our school in the evenings. In its early years, when we were still competing in obedience trials, AutumnGold offered both competitive obedience classes and basic manners classes. Today we employ a group of talented trainers and instructors and teach classes that are primarily designed for pet dog owners. These include puppy and adult manners classes, a set of dog sports (for fun) classes, and a series that we call “LifeSkills” for teaching behaviors that promote harmony between owners and their dogs and help dogs to be well-behaved and comfortable in many situations.

STUDENTS REINFORCE DOWN/STAY AT AUTUMNGOLD

This new book,  “Dog Smart: Evidence-based Training with The Science Dog is a product of my years owning and developing classes for AutumnGold, teaching, researching, and writing about dogs during my work at the University of Illinois, and training, living with and loving a long succession of beloved dogs. It focuses on solid, scientifically acquired knowledge about dogs and attempts to dispel many of the prevailing myths that continue to persist, even among professed dog lovers. It is also a testimony to just how far we have come in our understanding of and empathy for the amazing dogs who are in our care and with whom we are privileged to share our lives with. I hope that you will enjoy reading this book as much as I have enjoyed these many years of training, learning, and writing. Happy Training!

 

Congratulations, “Dog Smart” Raffle Winners!

Congratulations to the winners of the “Dog Smart” raffle. Each of our five winners will receive a free copy of Linda Case’s newest book,

Dog Smart: Evidence-based Training with The Science Dog“.

  • Clarinda Arsenault, Oregon, WI, USA
  • Cathy Hughes, Amissville, VA, USA
  • Nancy McPhee, British Columbia, CA
  • Jo Sellers, Guildford, UK
  • Karen Warda, Asheboro, NC, USA

Gift copies have been ordered and should be received within a week to 10 days.  I hope that you enjoy the book. If you like it, please feel welcome to include a review on its Amazon Page! (Description and Table of Contents are below).

Book Description: Anyone who lives with and loves dogs knows that they are smart. Really smart. They understand our body language and emotions, can be trained to perform important services, are devoted companions, and enjoy walks, tricks, dog sports or just hangin’ out on the couch. So, how “Dog Smart” are you? What do you know or wish to know about the dog’s history, perceptions, understanding of humans, and responses to different training methods? These topics and more come under the scrutiny of the Science Dog in Linda Case’s latest myth-busting book. Learn to separate fact from fiction about the relationship between dogs and wolves, whether dominance should be a factor in dog training, what forms of reinforcement work best, and how to apply evidence-based training methods. “Dog Smart” will not only help you to be a better trainer, but will give you the tools for communicating the most current information about dogs to others – including the popular Science Dog character, neighbor Joe (who happens to know a lot about dogs).

About the Author: Linda Case is a well-known author and dog trainer who speaks world-wide about evidence-based dog training, behavior and nutrition. She taught at the University of Illinois Department of Animal Sciences and College of Veterinary Medicine for 20 years and owns AutumnGold Dog Training Center in Illinois. She writes the popular blog, The Science Dog (https://thesciencedog.wordpress.com/).

  

Why We Click

There is no longer any doubt. Clicker training is here to stay.

More and more animal trainers are using it.

Although I work with dogs, not dinosaurs, I too am a dedicated clicker trainer, as are most of the instructors who teach for me at AutumnGold. However, while the theoretical underpinnings of clicker training are solid – and date back to Skinner’s original operant conditioning studies of the 1930’s – there is surprising little published research regarding its application to dog training. (There are even fewer studies of its effectiveness for training velociraptors. Huh. Who knew?). Even more surprising is the fact that the results of the dog studies that are available are not unequivocally in the “Yay, Clicker Training!” camp. Rather, their results have been lukewarm at best, with some showing only limited (or no) benefit.

Lucky for us, Lynna Feng, a graduate student at La Trobe University in Victoria, has taken on clicker training as her PhD research topic. I wrote about Lynna’s first paper in the Science Dog essay, “The Meaning of Click“. In her most recent publication, Lynna surveys the popularity of clicker training among dog trainers and asks the question “Why do we click“?

PUPPY COOPER HEELING FOR CLICKS

The Study: Lynna and her team used several approaches to this study. They directly interviewed a group of 13 dog trainers (8 clicker trainers, 3 non-clicker trainers, 2 uncommitted); reviewed a series of 7 best-selling dog books whose primary subject is clicker training; and examined five different click-dedicated websites. Data were coded and analyzed using a validated procedure called qualitative content analysis. This process describes the targeted phenomenon within a framework of predefined questions. In this case, the questions that the researchers were attempting to answer were:

  1. What is clicker training?
  2. Why do people use clicker training [with dogs]?
  3. What methods are generally considered to be “best practice” in relation to clicker training?

Here is what they found. Keep your clicker close by cuz this is really good stuff.

Results – What is Clicker Training? The study generated a lot of information, so I will attempt to distill this into results that are most relevant to dog trainers:

  • Philosophy or Technique? The majority of dog trainers view clicker training as both a training philosophy and a technique.  As a philosophy, the non-aversive and dog-centric nature of clicker training plus dogs’ positive experience of clicker training were emphasized. As a training technique, trainers espoused more practical views, such as “clicker training as a way to identify desirable behaviors in a dog with a clear signal (marker)” and “Using a clicker communicates to my dog that a primary reinforcer will be coming soon“.
  • The Dog’s Experience: Generally, trainers focused more on the communication properties of the clicker (i.e. marking a behavior and communicating to the dog that they are doing the ‘right thing”) rather than on its function as a secondary reinforcer. This is a rather important difference from the results of empirical research which suggests that the primary function of the click sound to an animal is as a secondary (conditioned) reinforcer. However, when applied to dog training, the clicker appears to be viewed first and foremost as an important communication tool that enhances the training experience and promotes learning. (More about this later).

Results: Why Click? The most consistently reported reason to clicker train was the perception that it helps dogs to learn more rapidly and effectively. Trainers also reported a number of additional reasons that they choose this training method:

  • Clicker training promotes active learning and encourages dogs to think for themselves. The end result is a dog who is eager to learn, more attentive, happy and confident. (This benefit was strongly contrasted with traditional training methods that focus more on instilling command compliance).
  • For the trainer, clicker training was reported to be easy to learn, encourages accurate timing and proper technique, and allows the trainer to better understand their dog’s learning process.
  • Many trainers mentioned their relationship with their dog, saying that clicker training strengthens their bond and improves communication (there is that communication thing again….).

CLICKER TRAINING IS REPORTED TO IMPROVE COMMUNICATION WITH OUR DOGS

Results: What are the “Best Practices”? Several broad categories of advice were reported:

  • Introducing the clicker: Both “charging” the clicker (repetitions of click-treat [CT] not contingent upon a targeted behavior) and introducing the clicker by using CT to reinforce a simple, known behavior were recommended. There was no consensus regarding which approach was preferred or superior. When asked about the number of repetitions of CT needed to establish the click as a secondary reinforcer, a wide range of estimates was provided – between “a few” to several hundred!
  • How to click: A wide range of opinions surfaced regarding how exactly to use the clicker. Almost all agreed that clear training criteria were essential and that the signal (click) should be applied at the exact moment that the dog is engaging in the targeted behavior. Conversely, there was not consensus about what the dog should be doing immediately after the click. This is the never-ending “click ends behavior” vs. “click during the behavior and dog maintains the behavior” argument. To date, there is no empirical evidence that supports or refutes either approach. (In fact there is no published research that even compares the two). Many (but not all) of the sources agreed that the trainer should maintain “one click/one treat” and “the treat should follow the click as closely as possible”. (Note, this second rule has some supportive evidence with dogs in the literature).
  • When to click: When asked if there were particular contexts in which clicker training was more appropriate than others, a number of sources stated that clicker training is useful for teaching almost any new behavior to dogs, and is especially effective for those that involve multiple steps or that occur at a distance from the trainer. Other sources stated that clicker training should only be used in a “controlled environment” (whatever that means) or only for certain types of training. (My particular favorite response in this section was the warning by some trainers that clicker training should be not be used “unless you are a professional“. Hmmm…Really?).

PROFESSIONALS ONLY

Conclusions: The researchers’ goals with this survey study were to identify specific questions regarding clicker training with dogs that can be addressed through future empirical research. Here are several questions that they identify:

  1. Are the benefits associated with clicker training related to the level of experience that dogs have with this training approach? (It is hypothesized that some of the more pronounced benefits that many trainers noted, such as enhancing the bond that they have with their dog and improving communication, come about as a result of prolonged and consistent clicker training over a period of weeks and months).
  2. How long does it actually take to “charge” a clicker (i.e. to build the association that click always predicts treat)? Is it a few pairings, a few dozen, several hundred? Are multiple training sessions required or can this be accomplished in one session? Related to the previous question – What role does repeated and prolonged exposure to “charging” the clicker play in dogs’ ability to respond to clicker training?
  3. And my favorite: Does clicker training improve communication and enhance the relationship between the handler and her dog? If so, how does this develop and how is it expressed (or measured)?

Take Away for Dog Folks: The point made several times in this paper was that the benefits of clicker training to dogs and to their trainers appear to develop over time as the dog becomes more and more experienced with clicker training. This contrasts sharply with the methodology used in studies of clicker training with dogs, all of which tested the efficacy of clicker training with dogs who had little or no previous experience with a clicker and used a relatively small number of CT repetitions, short training sessions and simple target behaviors. This led me to wonder “Maybe the studies that have been published to date have studied something that is fundamentally different from what we, as trainers (and our dogs) are experiencing as clicker training in the real world“.

Here is what I mean: One possible reason that dog trainers, many who believe emphatically that clicker training is a highly effective tool, are at odds with the less than stellar results of the published studies is that perhaps we are not talking about the same things. In other words, the way in which clicker training has been studied with dogs (and, one could argue, with other species as well), is not the way in which clicker training is actually used in practice. Several important differences were identified in Lynna’s study. The two most important are: (1) In practice, clicker training takes place over extended periods of time; (2) It almost always includes an established and positive relationship between the trainee (the dog) and the trainer (usually the owner).

The primary point that I came away with from this paper was that despite some continued attempts  to make it so,  clicker training as applied with dogs is not a purely behavioristic methodology. Rather, if one considers all of the new information that we have regarding the dog’s cognitive abilities, including their well-documented ability to read and understand human communication signals, then it is likely that the actual practice of clicker training involves much more than a rigid application of CT without any personal (relationship), cognitive, or emotional component. Since the studies that are in existence have studied clicker training using highly controlled behavioristic methodologies, perhaps they did not effectively measure or capture the depth and complexity of the phenomenon that is taking place when we use clicker training with dogs.

The results of this paper will hopefully be the impetus for new studies of clicker training that include dogs who have an extensive clicker history and who have established relationships with their trainer. Other elements that require study include the variety of ways in which the clicker is applied during a training session (end of behavior vs. maintain/keep going), and the many areas of training in which it is currently used (complex chains, distance training, different sports and working contexts). Personally, I look forward to reading more about Lynna’s studies and thank her and her team for undertaking work that is of immense interest to dog folks, especially those of us who are dedicated clicker trainers.

So, why do I click? I click because it works, because my dogs love it, and because, like so many others report in this study, it contributes to my ability to communicate clearly to my dogs and enhances the loving bond that I have with them. Happy training, everyone!

Cited Reference: Feng LC, Howell TJ, Bennett PC. Comparing trainers’ reports of clicker use to the use of clickers in applied research studies: methodological differences may explain conflicting results. Pet Behavior Science 2017; 3:1-18.

 

 

 

“Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog” – Kindle Edition Now Available!

The Kindle edition of Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog” is now available! Click on the image below for more information and to order.

Book description:  In her second Science Dog book, Linda Case tackles commonly held beliefs about canine nutrition, pet foods, behavior, social cognition and training. Each of the book’s 32 chapters explores a current issue that is of interest to dog owners and pet professionals and presents the scientific evidence that supports or refutes commonly held claims and beliefs. Learn about pet food ingredients and research showing that what is on the label may not always be in the food, about measures of food quality (and what consumers may not know about the foods that they buy), and about the safety and digestibility of popular dog treats and chews. Other chapters review new information regarding how dogs communicate, factors that help or inhibit a dog’s ability to learn, and the effectiveness of different types of training. Find out if dogs are capable of “knowing what someone else knows”, if they feel empathy for their friends, if they bark for no reason, and if they are capable of feeling guilt following a misdeed. Learn more about breed stereotyping, factors that influence our perceptions of dogs, and which canine characteristics most influence our attraction to particular dogs. This newest Science Dog book has something for everyone who works with and trains dogs, as well as for those who simply love dogs and enjoy learning more about our canine best friends.

                                                                             ♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

coversnip

New Book! “Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog”

Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog” (paperback version) is now available! Click on the image below for more information and to order. (Kindle version will be available soon!)

Book description:  In her second Science Dog book, Linda Case tackles commonly held beliefs about canine nutrition, pet foods, behavior, social cognition and training. Each of the book’s 32 chapters explores a current issue that is of interest to dog owners and pet professionals and presents the scientific evidence that supports or refutes commonly held claims and beliefs. Learn about pet food ingredients and research showing that what is on the label may not always be in the food, about measures of food quality (and what consumers may not know about the foods that they buy), and about the safety and digestibility of popular dog treats and chews. Other chapters review new information regarding how dogs communicate, factors that help or inhibit a dog’s ability to learn, and the effectiveness of different types of training. Find out if dogs are capable of “knowing what someone else knows”, if they feel empathy for their friends, if they bark for no reason, and if they are capable of feeling guilt following a misdeed. Learn more about breed stereotyping, factors that influence our perceptions of dogs, and which canine characteristics most influence our attraction to particular dogs. This newest Science Dog book has something for everyone who works with and trains dogs, as well as for those who simply love dogs and enjoy learning more about our canine best friends.

                                                                             ♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

coversnip

Just Show Me A Sign

Like many dog trainers, I use both verbal and gestural (hand) signals as cues with my dogs. With our students at AutumnGold, we introduce both verbal and physical cues at the same time, but generally emphasize verbal signals because this is what most pet owners prefer to use with their dogs.

AG Down Stay

AUTUMNGOLD STUDENTS USE GESTURES AND VERBAL CUES WHILE PRACTICING DOWN STAYS

All of our classes include instructions for fading gestural cues in favor of  verbal cues for owners who wish to use primarily verbal signals. Students are taught to “lead with the verbal cue and follow with the gesture“, thus establishing a classical relationship (verbal signal predicts gesture signal). This connection allows the trainer to gradually fade the hand signal and eventually to rely primarily on the verbal command.

On the other hand (literally), hand signals are a lot of fun to teach and come in handy in a wide variety of exercises. For these, we offer a dedicated “hand signals” class, for students who are interested in teaching their dog distance signals and hand cues for direction or jumping. This is great fun for dogs and their people and is also helpful for students who are interested in competing in dog sports.

Chip Agility Jumping  Chip Down Signal                      CHIPPY SHOWS OFF HIS HAND SIGNALS FOR JUMPING AND DOWN

However, like many dog training practices, the use of verbal versus hand signals with dogs has not been formally studied. Until recently, that is.

Enter Biagio D’Aniello and his team of scientists at the University of Naples (among others) in Italy. I have written about this group’s research on previous occasions. They work with retrievers who are trained for water rescue work and are reporting new information regarding the dog’s communication skills and ability to learn through observation (see “With a Little Help from My Friends” and “Doggie See, Doggie Do“).

This time around, the researchers asked whether dogs who are trained to respond equally to verbal and gestural cues show a preference for one type over the other.

The Study: A group of 25 certified water rescue dogs were enrolled. The group included 10 Golden Retrievers and 15 Labrador Retrievers, composed of 12 males and 13 females. Per training protocols for water rescue, all of the dogs had been trained to respond to both verbal and gestural cues. The dogs were tested in four behaviors; sit, down, stay and come. The study was conducted in three phases. Phase 1: The four basic commands were given using gestures only. Phase 2: Commands were delivered using a verbal cue only. Phase 3: (Here is where things get tricky). Both forms of a command were given, but incongruently (i.e. they conflicted with each other). For example, the verbal command for “sit” was paired with the gesture for “down”, the verbal command for “come” was paired with the gesture for “stay”, etc. The frequencies of correct responses were recorded in the first two phases, and a “preference index” that indicated the percent of correct gestural responses was calculated for the third phase.

Results:

  1. Just a sign, please: When gestures alone were used, all of the dogs responded correctly to all four commands, with the exception of a single error (one dog missed a “down” signal). In contrast, when verbal cues were used, the dogs made a total of 18 errors. The most common mistake was failing to lie down in response to the verbal command “down”. These results suggest that dogs who were trained using both verbal and hand signal cues (and when no attempt was made to emphasize one type of signal over the other), the dogs responded more consistently to gestures than to verbal cues.
  2. Location, location, location: While dogs showed an overall preference for gestures over verbal commands, this preference was not found when the verbal command to “come” was paired with the hand signal “stay” and the owner was located a distance away from the dog. In this case, the majority of dogs (56 %) responded to the verbal command. This difference suggests that although the dogs tended to pay more attention to hand signals than to verbal commands, this preference may be overridden by the preference to stay in close proximity to the owner.
  3. Girls may be more visual: An interesting result of this paper was the sex difference that was found. Female dogs showed a strong preference for responding to hand gesture cues, while males were more likely to respond equally to both types of cue. (Note: Although there is a bit of previous research suggesting that female dogs concentrate more on visual cues than do males, the small numbers in this trial coupled with the method of scoring lead the researchers to interpret this result with caution – in other words, this may be a “statistical hiccup”).

This pilot study suggests that when dogs are trained to both hand signals and verbal commands, they will respond most consistently to hand signals. The study also suggests that context is an important factor, in that having a preference to be close to the trainer may override a preference for gestural signals, leading a dog to choose the signal (verbal or gestural) that leads to proximity.

Take Away for Dog Folks

The finding that dogs (usually) respond better to hand signals than they do to verbal cues is probably not surprising to most trainers. This certainly supports our understanding of dogs as being highly responsive to body language and non-verbal cues. Still, it is always gratifying to find scientific data that supports one’s (previously unsupported) suppositions.

This is Data

Do hand signals have enhanced saliency? However, is it possible that there is more to the differences found in this study than is explained by the dog’s proclivity for reading body language? This paper lead me to think more deeply about these two types of signals; specifically about the type of hand signals that we choose to use.  The majority of hand signals that we use in dog training are far from being  arbitrary signals. Rather they are structured in both form and function to direct the dog’s attention or body to part or all of the targeted behavior. For example, a commonly used hand signal for “down” is  a sweeping motion from the dog’s “nose to his toes”. During training, this gesture easily doubles as both a lure when food is held in the hand and as a vehicle to deliver positive reinforcement when the hand delivers a food treat once the dog attains the down position. A reliable response to the hand signal alone is achieved by gradually removing the lure from the signaling hand and switching to +R from the opposite hand. We are then left with a hand signal that has, well, enhanced saliency for the dog, if you will. A second example is the use of body language and hand signals to inform a dog about the direction to run or jump in agility training. The physical signal itself has inherent meaning to the dog (we all get this). This signal is then enhanced by pairing it with food or an opportunity to tug. Contrast these gesture examples to the variety of verbal cues that we use with dogs (sit, down, come, etc). All of these, of course, are completely arbitrary from the dog’s point of view. We could just as easily use the word “down” to train a down command as the word “pumpkin” or “fluffy butt”. While we do enhance saliency by pairing these terms with reinforcers, they cannot be structured in the same way that gestures can to be naturally obvious (salient) to the dog.

So, in addition to dogs being highly attentive to body language (I think we all agree on that), it also seems that the hand signals that we select function to naturally attract our dog’s attention and direct behavior. The trainer “beefs up” this attraction by pairing the signal with positive reinforcement. Therefore, gestural cues may always have one step up over verbal cues when comparing the two (when the owner is in close proximity). Here is an idea – try training a sit using a down hand signal or teaching an agility dog to jump in the opposite direction from which you are pointing. In addition to this being a bit of a training challenge (more than a bit, I suspect), I would hypothesise that when arbitrary gestural signals are compared with verbal cues, we might see a leveling out of the preferences for gesture versus verbal signals. Just an idea……any researchers biting?

A role for individual preference and reinforcement history? I also pondered what the influence of an individual’s preference might be in this type of testing. All dogs tend to have certain exercises that they enjoy more than others. Some of these exercises may be inherently reinforcing for the dog while others may simply be preferred because they have a strong reinforcement history with the trainer (i.e. the exercise has been practiced and reinforced more frequently). In the case of this study, we might expect that dogs trained for water rescue work would be highly bonded to their owners and would also have a very strong reinforcement history for the “come” command. It would be interesting to explore verbal versus gesture preferences in dogs who are trained for different types of work, who may have different behavior preferences and reinforcement histories. Such a test would be analogous to the study that this same group did with dog’s looking back for help, in which they found some very interesting differences.

In practice: From a practical viewpoint, as a trainer, these results suggest to me that we should be doubly careful when fading hand signals in favor of verbal cues, especially when training a dog’s less preferred behaviors. While this research suggests that dogs are asking us to “just show me a sign”, it also seems that their responses will be influenced by a number of factors, including looking for the cue that tells them what they want to hear!

Dottie Come when Called

COMING WHEN CALLED IS DOTTI’S PREFERRED BEHAVIOR!

Cited Study: D’Aniello B, Scandurra A, Alterisio A, Valsecchi P, Prato-Previde E. The importance of gestural communication: A study of human-dog communication using incongruent information. Animal Cognition 2016; DOI: 10.1007/s10071-016-1010-5.