Matt Drobnik photo -- Creative Commons license
Source: Matt Drobnik photo -- Creative Commons license

I was recently at a dog training seminar in Abbotsford (a town about an hour away from Vancouver, Canada). During one of the breaks a small group of highly respected dog trainers and dog obedience competitors had gathered together, with cardboard coffee cups in hand. They were doing what dog handlers tend to do when they get together, namely discussing how best to get dogs to do what you want them to do. It was a rather vigorous debate and this time the issue in dispute was whether or not to use the dog's name as part of the command. The group was all in agreement that it was critical that the dog must be paying attention to its handler if you are going to get a reliable response. But whether the dog's name was needed to capture that attention was the principal issue.

One highly successful dog obedience competitor insisted that if the dog is already paying attention to its handler, then using his name as part of the command is not only unneeded, but might actually be a distraction. He argued that the dog's name merely provided the dog with a sound that conveyed no additional information in this situation. In fact he suggested that giving the dog's name simply delayed its processing of the actual command and might be a meaningless distraction.

A second member of the group, pointed out that dogs live in a sea of human verbal sounds and the dog's name alerted the dog that the next set of sounds coming from the handler's mouth was directed at them, rather than being part of a conversation that you were having with another human being. She suggested, "If I say 'Come here!' how does the dog know whether I was talking to the person next to me, perhaps the judge in a competition, or if I were talking to her? However, if I say 'Lassie come here!' There is no ambiguity and the dog knows the command was directed at her."

The third trainer insisted that the dog's name was an opportunity to capture the dog's attention before issuing the obedience command. She said that, especially in competition, she always gave the dog's name and then paused for a second to be sure that the name had captured the dog's attention and focused on her, before giving the actual obedience command.

The debate was lively, and one of the trainers turned to me and asked if there was any actual scientific data on this matter. I vaguely recalled that some research had been done in this issue but my age-addled memory could not retrieve it at the moment. However, at the end of the day, when I had returned home, I found that my data filing system was better organized than my brain, and there in fact had been a study published in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science* that directly addressed this question.

The research had been done by Maya Braem and Daniel Mills of the Animal Behaviour, Cognition and Welfare Group at the University of Lincoln in the UK. There were two parts to the investigation. In the first, 56 dog handlers were videotaped giving their dogs a "sit" command during dog obedience classes. The idea was to look at a well learned obedience command in order to see how reliably the dogs responded and which aspects of the delivery of the command influenced the dog's performance. Analysis of the tapes showed that two factors were very important. Just as the dog handlers had presumed, the data showed that it was important that the dog be paying attention (looking at the handler) for it to respond reliably. The data also showed that having any verbal information given to the dog before the command (for example "Look at me. Lassie sit!") decreased the likelihood that the dog would respond consistently.

Based on these results, a second more controlled study was run with 12 dogs. The idea was to see how well dogs responded to a well-known and familiar command like "sit" or "down", or a recently learned command (in this case "uff" which meant to jump onto a raised surface). Once the dogs were trained to a predetermined criterion they were tested to see how dependably they responded to four ways of delivering the obedience command. These were: the verbal command alone; the dog's name followed immediately by the command; the dog's name followed by a pause of two seconds before issuing the command; or a meaningless word sound (here they used "Banane") preceding the command.

The comparison between giving the obedience command alone, or with the dog's name directly preceding it, showed absolutely no difference. In other words, saying the dog's name did not provide an additional advantage in reliability. Giving the irrelevant word sound before the command caused the dog's performance to deteriorate for both the well known and the newly learned commands. If the dog's name was given and then there was a two second pause before giving the command its performance was significantly less dependable for the newly learned command, but had no effect on the well-known commands.

The researchers concluded that for well learned commands dogs tend to view the command alone (i.e. "Down!") versus the dog's name immediately followed by the command (i.e. "Lassie, down!") as being alternate forms of the same communication. Any additional verbal information before the command will reduce the accuracy of the dog's performance (i.e. "Ready. Down!"). For newly learned obedience commands the disruption in accuracy is greater if the signal was preceded by irrelevant speech sounds, or if there is a pause between the dog's name and the actual command.

So the take away message for dog trainers and handlers seems to be that if the dog is paying attention using its name or not using its name makes no difference when issuing an obedience command. However, meaningless babbling before issuing the command or delays between the dog's name and the action word are going to give poorer reliability, especially when dealing with commands that the dog has just recently learned.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

* Data from: Maya Diane Braem and Daniel Simon Mills, (2010). Factors affecting response of dogs to obedience instruction: A field and experimental study. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 125, 47–55

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