Check Your Verbal Cues

This is part of a series of several posts on cues.

I wrote last week a bit about what a cue is and common stimuli that can be used as cues. Often, we try and teach our pets verbal cues. But how well does your dog (or cat, parrot or pony) recognize your verbal cue and how much of the time is the animal picking up on your body language and signals?

Many times we think the animal is responding to our words, when in reality the animal is reponding to a hand signal, a shift in posture, a slight body movement or even our gaze. For example, I say “shake” when I ask Ginger to shake hands with me. In reality, the words have little meaning and she’s watching instead for my extended arm to reach for her paw. She’ll do the behavior almost everytime without any verbal cue. 

Here’s something to try this week. Make an list of all the verbal cues you think your dog knows. (For example, sit, come, stay, down, leave it, roll over.) Over the next few days try the following two exercises several times with each cue:

1. Do exactly what you usually do when you give the cue. However, instead of saying the word out loud, just say the word in your head. Does the dog still respond? If your dog responds, it doesn’t mean he’s reading your mind. Instead, he’s picking up on your body language instead of your actual words.

2. Now, stand perfectly still, not moving at all and say the word as you usually do when you give the cue. Does the dog still respond? If so, then your dog has a cue that is purely a verbal cue. 

We’ve been working on this in our pre-agility class with our “okay” cues. The “okay” cue is a release word telling the dog she can get up and move from the stay position.  I want the release word to be purely verbal; I don’t want my dog getting up and moving off during a stay because I made some sort of particular movement. We all thought we were doing pretty well on this, until our instructor started pointing out tiny body signals we were each giving to our dogs. When she had us stand perfectly still, many of the dogs had no idea what the release word meant!

So, how many verbal cues does your dog really know? Are there any word cues that you thought your dog knew that might need some work?

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