Dogs are extremely adaptable. Nothing proves this more than the fact that they are able to, not only learn a language that is completely foreign to their own, but that they are also able to understand our human body language. English is a second language for our dogs. With no formal training your dog may eventually be able to understand what you are saying. However, there are ways to speed this process up.
Learning to communicate with your dog using visual signals is a great way to have them responding to you the first time. I often hear people asking their dog to sit, sit, SIT, when the introduction of a single visual signal (usually using your hands) would result in compliance the first time. Dogs are non-verbal creatures, they communicate primarily with their body. Because of this they are masters at reading our body language. If you can incorporate visual signals in to your communication with your dog they will have a far better chance at understanding what you want from them.
When you are deciding on a visual signal to use there are a few things you need to keep in mind. Each skill should have its own visual signal, for example, if you use a pointed finger for sit, be careful that you are not using this same signal for chastising your dog. Visual signals should also start at your dogs eye level and be large enough (in the beginning) for your dog to see when there are distractions around. Visual signals should also have a definite start and finish; if you leave your hands dangling around your dogs’ face you will probably get your fingers bitten, or have dog that jumps up on you a lot.
As long as you are reinforcing your dog every now and again for compliance they will become conditioned to the visual signal for that particular behaviour. When you use these signals you will not have to ask your dog to do something over and over. If your dog is not responding to the visual signals you can be sure that you have pushed them too far, go back to a place that is a little less distracting.
Your visual signals should be the first thing you teach your dog, not words. Remember that English is a second language for dogs. You will get much more consistency with visual signals in the beginning. However, at some stage you should start to introduce verbal cues.
There is an easy rule of thumb of when to introduce verbal cues- when your dog is consistently (80% +) responding to visual signals, you can start to introduce a verbal cue. The reason being, you have to pair the behaviour with the word for your dog to connect the two. For example, if I arrived in Australia, not being able to speak one word of English, but every time I lowered myself on to a chair someone said ‘sit’, eventually, I would hear the word ‘sit’, and know that it meant; lower myself on to a chair. Would I also know it meant lower myself on to different surfaces? Perhaps not, this is why practicing in different areas with your dog is such a good idea. Over time, you can use both signals, verbal and visual, together. In the beginning, teach visual signals first and verbal cues second.
When you are teaching your dog a new visual signal timing the reinforcement will give more accurate feedback to your dog. The best way to do this is to have a clear picture in your head of what the skill you are trying to teach looks like. When you see this happen for the first time it may only occur for a second or two, so get in quick, so your dog makes the connection between the behaviour and reinforcement. For example, if you want to teach heeling you should reward your dog for walking at your left facing the same direction as you, and your dog should be looking at you. Be careful that you are not feeding your dog in front of you, otherwise, that is where they will tend to heel. Whether it is good or bad, you will get the behaviour you reinforce.
This leads me on to training one behaviour at a time. When you are teaching visual and verbal cues, it should be for one behaviour only. For example, have a visual signal and verbal cue for ‘come’, reward your dog for this, then have a different cue for ‘sit’, and reward them for sitting. If you are only rewarding your dog for sitting they may not have the best recall. Make each behaviour strong by reinforcing it, then, once they have developed at a single skill you can put them together for a strong sequence of behaviours.
We all want our dogs to listen to us, so why not use a combination of cues to help them out a little? Two cues, visual and verbal, are so much better than one. Start with your visual signals, then pair them with a verbal cue. Practice one behaviour at a time, and use exclusive cues for each behaviour. Finally, reward your dog when they are executing the correct behaviour. Your dog does not come to you understanding English, but with the right training you will be communicating fluently in no time.