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How to Tell a Dog What to Do Next

First a dog has to understand that you are actually giving it an instruction.

Drawing based on a Dawn Ellen Miller photo
Source: Drawing based on a Dawn Ellen Miller photo

On one particular afternoon, I had come to a dog show with a friend who was visiting for a few days. She was not familiar with dog obedience competitions, but since my dog was entered in the show she thought it might be fun to see him compete. Since it would be a while before my dog had to perform, we chose seats near the obedience rings and watched the other participants. My friend had a variety of questions, which I tried to answer, but also (perhaps because she was trained as a psychologist) she was an astute observer and made a number of interesting observations and comments about the proceedings, and particularly about the interactions between the dogs and the people.

At one point in the Utility competition (the most advanced competitive class) we observed a very familiar scene. The judge was standing next to the dog-handler and announced "The next exercise is the directed jumping. Are you ready?" The dog-handler, who was an extremely successful dog obedience competitor, looked down to his left side, made eye contact with his dog, and then without looking up announced "Ready!"

My friend made a little huffing sound and commented, "If they deduct points for rudeness, that handler will certainly take a hit. I mean the judge asked him a question, and he deliberately looked away from the judge and down at the dog, and then he gave the answer while staring at the animal rather than the person who was talking to him. That's really impolite."

I was surprised by her comment, namely because, like most obedience competitors, I view the interactions in the ring as being an exchange of information and directions between the dog-handler and his canine teammate, rather than a polite conversation with the judge. So I started to explain to my friend that there appears to be an effective psychological protocol in communicating with a dog and this dog-handler was simply following it. The problem is that the dog is always surrounded by a sea of sounds made by human beings. For example, suppose that I am seated on my sofa and I asked my wife to "come over and sit down beside me." How does my dog, who is lying on the floor in front of me, understand that I have not issued him a series of familiar commands — namely, "come", "sit" and "down?" The trick seems to be that when we actually want the dog to do something, we first have to let him know that the next sounds that are coming out of our mouths are directed toward him. Research shows that the best way to do this is to make eye contact with the dog and then to speak directly to him. Dog trainers and handlers know that the best thing to say to the dog, so that he is alerted to the fact that you are giving him some instruction, is the dog's name. This was illustrated a moment later when the judge instructed the handler to "Send your dog," and the handler looked at the dog and said, "Dash, go back!" while pointing to the far end of the ring. In response, the handsome Golden Retriever immediately began to run in the direction indicated.

I told my friend that using such techniques is not based on some sort of shared mythology among dog trainers, but rather, over the past few years, some bits of data have been collected which seem to verify the effectiveness of this means of telling a dog what to do. If we use the right set of cues, dogs do know when we are talking to them and trying to provide them with information (click here for an example).

Perhaps the most recent instance of such research can be found in an article that has just been published in the journal Animal Cognition*. It reported a study done by a team of researchers headed by Tibor Tauzin from the Cognitive Development Center, at the Central European University, in Budapest Hungary. These investigators tested 75 dogs to see if they responded differently to different sequences and types of communications. The task that the dogs had to perform was to choose between one of two buckets. One of these contained a ball, and if the dog chose correctly, the dog got to play with it a bit. To command the dog to go to a particular bucket the experimenter simply pointed to it.

However, before pointing to the correct target the communication with the dog was varied. In one condition the dog was alerted by a direct reference, namely, "Listen" and then the dog's name. This was next followed by the pointing gesture. Alternatively, the experimenters could simply give a clap of their hands, which might be expected to capture the dog's attention, at least a little bit, before pointing. To simplify the research findings, we can note that when the dog was alerted through the use of his name he chose the target that was pointed to correctly 73 perecent of the time. Compare that to the fact that when the dog was alerted only by a handclap, it was correct only 57 percent of the time, which is not significantly different from randomly guessing.

This study, and others like it, seem to make it clear that the trick to get a dog to do what you want him to do is to first alert him to the fact that you are going to give him a relevant instruction. So the judge's question, "Are you ready?" is an opportunity for the handler to make eye contact with the dog, using the word "Ready" to tell the dog that instruction directed to him is coming up. Next, the use of the dog's name plus whatever command is required (voice or gesture) actually launches the dog's behavior.

My friend looked at me and smiled, then asked, "Does it work for humans as well?" I responded by saying that there is no reason to expect that it should not. "Okay then," she said as she looked into my eyes, and said, "Stanley," then pointed toward a nearby snack bar and continued, "Coffee!" I obediently got up and went to get her a cup of coffee — Woof! Woof!

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: Tibor Tauzin, Andor Csík, Anna Kis, Krisztina Kovács, József Topál, (2015). The order of ostensive and referential signals affects dogs’ responsiveness when interacting with a human. Animal Cognition, 18 (4), 975-979

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