Sunday, January 18, 2009

22. Verbal Cue & Hand Signal Tips

Most dogs are better at hand and body signals that they are verbal cues. We recommend teaching hand signals before verbal ones as the dogs seem to learn them faster. Ensure that every hand signal is unique and clear so that your dog can see it even from a distance.

In operant conditioning, verbal behavioral cues are not added until after the dog understands the finished behavior. In the ‘Flip the Light Switch Video’ you saw that it was not until after Jessie successfully flipped the switch on the wall at least 80% of the time, that the cue ‘switch’ was added. This applies to all new behaviors or tasks that you train your dog.

The easiest way to do this is to say the cue as the dog is doing the behavior (has already started) for about 10-20 repetitions, then just as the dog starts the behavior, then just before. When you think your dog understands it, test it out by saying the cue when standing near the target, in the posture or whatever might help the dog to remember what you are asking and give the verbal cue. If he does it, he likely knows what it means. If not, you'll need to do some practice. Also try saying the cue in different tones and loudnesses. Some dogs respond better to whispers than normal talking. Some don't do well with cue delivered like a command. Don't be discouraged if it seems to take a long time. Some dogs are not verbally inclined.

This video shows the process of capturing a behavior, then putting it on cue, from start to finish. It also tewches physical cues (like body motion as well as hand signals) and verbal cues.

Sounds of Verbal Cues
When choosing verbal cues, ensure that they all sound different, especially focusing on making similar behaviors start with different constants and have different vowel sounds. ‘Sit’, ‘spin’, ‘sing’ are so similar it is very difficult for a non-verbally oriented dog to tell them apart. ‘Sit’, ‘Turn’ and ‘Woo’ would be better choices. Often people will use words from another language if they are looking for words that sound very different from each other. ‘Platz’ in German means ‘floor’ and is commonly used to train a down. You hopefully have already created a list of tasks you will train your dog so you can plan what each will be named to avoid similar sound conflicts.

Every Behavior or Task Does Not Need a Unique Cue
To keep it easier for you to remember, every behavior or task need not have a cue. For some people, it is easier to label the motion, rather than the task. ‘Touch’ could be to touch your hand, the spot on the wall or the distant touch-sensitive lamp. ‘Pull’ for any behavior that requires just it such as opening a door, pulling off a sock or ‘shut’ for any nose pushing behavior.

This works well, especially for dogs that also know a finger or hand point at the object you want them to interact with. “Bring” combined with a finger point is usually sufficient for a dog to understand what you are asking. With ‘turn’, there are two directional choices. Combine ‘turn’ with a hand cue in the direction to want. You can even just move your eyes as the directional cue.

If you do want to phase out the finger point, you can teach your dog to identify objects, people or other dogs by name. We have found that the more of an emotional connection a dog has to an object, person or dog, the faster they learn the name. For example, a ‘ball’, ‘Daddy’ or ‘Jasper’ are usually more quickly learned than ‘light’ or ‘door’.

Naming Objects
It does take time and specific training for a dog to learn to recognize objects by name. Start with one object and adding others one by one as she is successful. Practice alternating the objects once your dog is successful, or place three or more in a row and ask your dog to bring or indicate the one you name. Some dogs can take months to learn some verbal cues so be patient! Choose these names wisely as well.

Words are Meaningless to Dogs
Also remember that words by themselves are meaningless to dogs, just as they are to babies. It is by association & training that they learn what any one word means. “Sit’ is commonly used by everyone to mean ‘bend your back legs at the knee and sink your back end to the ground’, but you could use ‘spaghetti’ to mean the same thing. As long as you remember that ‘spaghetti’ means sit, your dog will learn it. That’s why it is important to choose words that are logical to you and will help you to remember them, especially when you are under stress.

Consistency is Important
The key is to use verbal cues and names consistently. If you decide to change a cue from one word to another, first use the new one quickly followed by the old one for about 20-30 repetitions. “Here, Come” Then drop the old second cue every other time “come” and see if she can still succeed. If so, you can now use the new one ‘here’. If not, do more practice with the new word before the old cue. “Here, Come”.