“Puppy nerd” asked a great question in his or her comment: Given how visual dogs are, should one start an exercise with visual signals to help the dog get it right, and then switch to acoustic ones, or avoid visual signals altogether if you want your dog to pay attention to your voice? Well, this could keep us all busy for the next few months. I know this is a loaded issue, with people strongly advocating one or the other (mostly the latter in my experience.)
There’s no ‘right’ answer, at least not in my opinion. But then, I’m not a big advocate for there being one way to train. There are many roads, as they say, to the top of the mountain. I think what’s most important is to be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of starting with visual signals. The first obvious advantage is that dogs learn them readily, and thus you can create ‘wins’ fast and start reinforcing dogs right away. That’s good for dogs, and it’s good for novice owners too, because people get reinforced when their dog does it right, and are more likely to keep training when it works relatively fast.
I also think it’s a good thing to help dogs understand what we want right off the bat; I don’t think it’s always “positive” to not give a dog any clues at all about what he’s supposed to do next. The other reason I like visual signals early in training is that I love using them in daily life. I love being able to “call” my dog to come, lie down and stay while I’m on the phone, or motion one dog to do one thing and another to do something else.
The disadvantage of starting with visual signals is that if you want your dog to lie down to a verbal command, without relying on a verbal prompt, you need to carefully and thoughtfully eliminate the motion during training. This can be tricky, because non-professional dog trainers tend to be relatively unaware of the movement of their body, and end up often using a movement as a prompt. They think their dog is lying down to “lie down,” but he’s really watching to see if their head dips forward. Their dog never really learns the verbal signal, and is always waiting for the owner to give the salient signal. The salient signal to the owner is the phrase “lie down,” but the salient one to the dog is the head nod. That leads to obvious confusion and frustration on both sides.
For whatever good it is, here’s what I do. I’d be curious how others handle it; I look forward to your comments.
To train sit, for example. I use the tried and true ‘lure/reward’ method advocated by Ian Dunbar, but I combine it with a lot of operant principles. I’ll lure the dog into a sit with a treat in my hand, but not give the verbal cue at all. Over the next few sessions I”ll modify the movement of my hand into less of a ‘lure over the head toward the tail’ to a upward sweep of the hand. Once I can predict the dog will respond to the motion with a sit 80% or so of the time (you know we all really make those numbers up, don’t you? I’m just estimating.) I’ll add in the verbal cue, being careful to say it BEFORE I move my hand.
After a few sessions of lots of saying “Sit” right before I make the visual signal, I’ll say “Sit” and not move. Now the dog is being asked to sit just to a sound, not a movement. I’ll wait 2 seconds or so. If the dogs sits within that time frame I’ll jackpot big time, with lots and lots of treats, and then try again. If the dog doesn’t sit and just stares at me like I”m an idiot, I’ll turn away, wait a few more seconds and then try again. If I get no response just to the word for 3 tries, I’ll add back the visual and end on a ‘win.’
So, what do you do?
Laura Romanik says
I’m a competitive obedience trainer. I was at your seminar last Saturday in Ann Arbor, MI. I’m with you that I like to use visual signals in the initial training. It’s really so much easier to get a dog to do what you want when you can lure with a cookie. But as you said, this can make it very hard to get the behavior on just a voice command. I found your research showing that when puppies were trained with a visual and audible signal at the same time, that the visual overshadowed the audible to be very fascinating and gratifying in that it confirmed what good dog trainers have often observed.
Like you, to transfer to a voice command I teach my students to pay attention to their body and make sure all parts of their body is still (not just the hand) when they say the command, and then immediately follow with the hand motion. I find that once I get people to understand this, they tend to then wait a long time after giving the voice command. More like you described when you are testing the response. I tell them not to test. Just say the word and then move the hand right away.
In fact, I typically do this for as many repetitions as it takes (over however many sessions it takes) until I see the dog start to respond before I move. Usually it isn’t a complete response. But you can usually see the dog start the very beginning of the behavior, e.g. lowering the head and shoulders for a “down”. Only then do I try the test, where I say the command and wait and see if the dog will do it. I only wait about one second, though, and after that second is up if the dog has not completed the behavior, I follow through with the hand motion. I then do a few more repetitions without waiting between the voice command and the hand motion before I test again.
The reason I do it this way is that I want a fast, crisp response to my voice command for obedience competition. If you test too often, too soon, and wait too long after giving the command when a dog isn’t responding, you can end up with a slow response.
Do you have any suggestions for what to call this technique? I’ve not been able to think of a good description name or phrase for it. I just keep saying to my students “you need to pay attention to that timing thing”. If I had a cute, catchy phrase for it, it might be easier to remember.
I like your philosophy of doing all you can to create a win, and I hear you loud and clear that training is pretty much all about the timing (along with 5 other things, but still.. Timing timing timing has to be at the top of all of our lists.
I’m no help at all about naming your technique, I am helpless at naming business, techniques, etc. (But I could help you name a dog, I’m really good at that! Do you have a ram that needs a name, I’m pretty good at that too… so far I’ve had Beavis (who should have been named Butthead, admittedly), Gandhi (in hopes he’d be benevolent, unlike Beavis) and my favorite, the Dali Rhama….).
I am not being helpful, I know, I sincerely apologize for not coming up with a good name for what you do.
Any ideas from anyone else?
Rachel H. says
Your way of teaching sit is exactly what we do at C.U. Works well for … 90% of the clients :).