Do Dogs Respond More Accurately to Words or Gestures?

Should you use a voice command or a signal when directing a dog?

Posted Nov 30, 2017

Image from SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd
Source: Image from SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd

If you watch any dog obedience class, you will find that in almost every instance, dogs are not just being taught simple verbal commands, but are also being trained to respond to gestures in the form of hand signals. Thus, in teaching the dog to lie down, he is given the verbal command, "Down!" accompanied by a downward hand movement in front of his face. Such a communication is technically called "bimodal," with "modal" in this case refers to the sensory modalities of both hearing and vision.

While most people think that language and communication depend mostly on spoken words, there is a huge tendency to underestimate the part that body language plays in conveying our messages, specifically the visual signals that we give through our hand and body movements. In most instances, body language is automatic in that we don't tend to consciously think about it, but it clearly serves the purpose of reinforcing and clarifying our messages to other people, and we rely on it as a way of understanding others' communication.

Consider the figure below. It shows various body postures based on how a person is moving when they are speaking. Now see if you can connect the appropriate body signal with each of the following phrases:

  • "We won!"
  • "I really don't want any of that."
  • "Welcome to my home."
  • "Don't you forget that I'm still the boss around here!"
Image from SC Psychological Ltd
Source: Image from SC Psychological Ltd

Most people have little difficulty reading the body language and associating it with the words. It might even be difficult to imagine a situation where an enthusiastic phrase like "We won!" is delivered by someone standing motionless.

Since the verbal and the visual channels are separate ways of delivering a message, it's interesting to ask the question as to which one is more effective. This is of particular interest to people participating in dog obedience competitions, since for many exercises, the competitor must tell the dog what to do using a verbal command or a hand signal, but not both.

A research team headed by Anna Scandurra at the University of Naples Federico II decided to try to answer the question of whether words or signals are more effective for directing dogs. The task which they set out to look at involved dogs fetching a designated object. The object could either be indicated by its name, or it could be identified by the dog's owner pointing to it.

In this study, 13 dogs were trained to identify one of three objects by name and retrieve it for their owners when that name was spoken. In addition, the dogs were trained to retrieve any of the three objects that their trainer pointed to. Before the final testing, it was important to establish that the dogs responded equally well to both the word-based commands and the gestures. This turned out to be more difficult than expected: Ultimately only nine dogs met that criterion and went on to the final assessment phase.

The test phase consisted of 32 trials, in which there were two objects placed two meters apart across the room. Several types of trials were used—eight were verbal commands alone; eight were gestural commands, where the owner pointed to the object; and eight were the combined verbal and signal command. The final eight tests were the crucial ones, because both verbal and gestural commands were given, but they were contradictory. Thus if one of the objects was a plastic bottle and the other was a piece of wood, the trainer could give the command "Bottle," but point to the piece of wood. It was reasoned that the stronger and more effective command would be obeyed.

The results were unambiguous. First, dogs responded equally well to both verbal and gestural commands (but of course they were pretested to make sure that was the case). In the bimodal command situation, where word and signal were both used together, the dogs responded significantly more quickly. However, the most important test involved seeing how the dogs would respond when word and gesture gave conflicting information. In this contradictory condition, seven of the nine chose to follow the gestural command and performed well above chance. Two of the dogs basically performed at a chance level, randomly choosing to retrieve either the object verbally indicated or the object pointed at equally often. None of the dogs showed a significant preference for the spoken command over the hand signal.

This latest research confirms other research that has been gradually establishing that although dogs can learn both verbal commands and gestured signals, the visual signals are more effective.

This research also supports the idea that dogs seem to act very much like human toddlers when it comes to mental abilities. You can confirm this for yourself, if you have access to a child around 3 years old. Simply get two objects — say, a red ball and a green ball — and place them on one side of the room separated by around six feet. Then point to the green ball, and say, "Get the red ball." Previous research suggests that under these conditions, the human child will act much like the dogs in this experiment, following the pointing gesture rather than the spoken word. This corroborates the idea that there is a lot of similarity in the way that dogs and human children think.

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

Facebook image: Leszek Glasner/Shuttterstock


Anna Scandurra, Alessandra Alterisio, Massimo Aria, Rosaria Vernese and Biagio D’Aniello (2017). Should I fetch one or the other? A study on dogs on the object choice in the bimodal contrasting paradigm. Animal Cognition.

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