How Do Dogs Learn? The Science Behind Physical and Verbal Cues

Ever wondered whether you should communicate with your dog through spoken commands or through visual cues? You are not alone.

You can see handlers guiding their dogs through challenges of a sheepwork trial or an agility course with solely verbal cues or what often looks like solely verbal cues. Dogs are able to learn an amazing amount of skills, and our own imagination is often the only limit of what we can teach them.

Having said that, understanding spoken language doesn’t come naturally for dogs. They communicate with each other through body language. The more natural something is for dogs, the quicker they learn it. The less natural something is, the more time and repetitions they need. That’s why teaching a dog to follow a verbal cue reliably takes more time than learning to follow body language.

But what is the science behind this, and what kind of signals are the most effective when you’re teaching your dog something new? A team of researchers from the Psychology Department at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, recently set out to determine this.

Specifically, they set out to look at what happens in the dog's brain when it is being taught a new association using different types of signals. The researchers were teaching the dog to discriminate which of two different signals was associated with a reward and which was not. The learning stimuli could involve smell, vision, or hearing. You can read more about the research methodology on Psychology Today.

In the end, the results were clear. The dogs learned the difference between the scent stimuli most quickly, followed by the difference between the visual stimuli. The verbal stimuli was the hardest for them to learn.

So where does that leave us?

You can definitely benefit from reliable verbal commands in many situations on an agility course, especially if you have physical restrictions, or if your dog is much faster than you are. However, not all of us are able to invest the time needed for training our dogs to obey verbal commands, or we’d rather save our dogs from the stress of hundreds of repetitions. Keeping the dog motivated for the amount of repetitions needed can also be a challenge.

The tricky thing with verbal commands is that the more you rely on them, the less you tend to pay attention to the other elements of handling. According to the research findings, it should be the other way around.

Verbal cues work best when they support your other handling elements. When other handling elements conflict with the verbal cues, the dog will follow what’s natural for it. You can teach the dog to ignore the handler’s body language and follow solely the verbal cues, but that takes even more repetitions. 

By learning to understand your dog’s perspective in agility, and communicating in the language your dog naturally understands, your body language, you can make reading the course easy for your dog!

What are your experiences of verbal and body language cues? Let us know in the comments below!

Our mission is to give a happy life to dogs by helping people become amazing dog owners. We are passionate about increasing the mutual understanding between the dog and the owner, making a life together more enjoyable for both.