Friday, December 13, 2013

I Cue With Words

Do dogs understand words? 
It seems so. We all know dogs that make the connection between word that is always used in the same context, and a certain event, subject or object that is relevant to them: Walk, leash, car, cookie, kitty, park…
However, up until recently the scientific sticking point was if dogs actually comprehend the word, or pick up non-verbal cues at the same time and respond to that. Professional opinions are still split, but we’re getting increasingly more evidence that, indeed, dogs are capable of understanding our human verbal cues. 
You might have heard of Chaser, the Border collie who knows 1022 words, independently confirmed. 
Alexandra Horowitz, in “Inside of a Dog”, says that the sound we make carries meaning for our dog; that dogs have the cognitive ability to understand words they learned as important information for them. 
And Claudia Fugazza, an Italian scientist and trainer who does groundbreaking, and fascinating, work with dogs’ social learning abilities, states that a cue given verbally has mental representation for the dog. She says that almost every dog she worked with was able to learn to distinguish between words, but also says that the verbal aptitude depends on the dog’s experience with words. Sadly, many dogs have little experience. 

A chief peeve I have with the famous TV pack leader is that he doesn’t verbally communicate with the dogs he interacts with – although that isn’t quite true cause he does use the “tsst” sound as a threat. Famous means that many dog owners follow his guff and dismiss a whole segment of information transfer, and as a result there is a gap, or abyss, or complete breakdown, in communication between dog and person, which adversely affects the relationship and the dog’s welfare, and ultimately behavior. You can bet on that.
But it’s not only the Whisperer who doesn’t speak to dogs. Disappointingly, some positive reinforcement trainers’ goal also is a dog who is watchful and attuned to his human’s non-verbal gestures and movements, aligning his actions accordingly. Even though it is more pleasant for the dogs because they’re not shocked and collar corrected, they are still missing out on an important part of communication. 

Teaching cues in words is not just a theoretical concept. It has real life practical advantages: You are heard, you lower stress, and your dog stays attentive and learns better. 

Newsflash! Words also work when your dog is NOT watching you. Dogs can split attention and still know you exist even if they don’t look at you. Yes, of course we want the pooch to offer eye contact a whole lot, but to expect that he completely blocks out every stimulus that is part of the world he lives in, and only fixates on the handler, is unrealistic, and a bit narcissistic. 
And whenever he doesn’t look at you, you’re out of luck with your non-verbal signals. They are not received. 

Words are information, and information lowers stress. Christina Maslach, researcher at the University of California at Berkeley, found that one of the strongest predictors for job related stress and burnout is a vacuum of information from the top down. In the human/dog relationship, you’re the top, so give helpful cues when the dog needs them. You could argue that information transfer can be non-verbal, and you’d be correct, but the thing is that we humans are a wordly species, and often more precise when we speak instructions.
When you use your voice in a supportive way, it becomes an emotional feel-good trigger and then, regardless what it is you say, it puts your dog at ease when he is nervous. 

Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods in “Genius of Dogs” state that several studies showed that talking while demonstrating a solution to a problem helps dogs pay attention and learn better. 
So babble away to keep your dog engaged and relaxed, but when you give a direct instruction, one word precision is best, spoken once, then giving the dog a chance to respond, but helping him if he doesn’t understand. 
Helping sometimes means adjusting the situation, but often repeating the word works. Repeating is okay, but verbal diarrhea isn’t. The difference is that with the former you give the dog a chance to think and act, and the latter is an irritating staccato-like: down-down-down-down…” or whatever it is you’re teaching.

You can also help with a gestural hint, so don’t shelve non-verbal communication altogether. Use your words, and your body, and your eyes to communicate. All is valuable social information for your dog.
You build cue/action awareness every time you connect a word and non-verbal signal with the specific action. If you want your dog to respond to both, Claudia Fugazza advices that the time between word and gesture should not be more than ½ second, but should not overlap. Whether you use the word or gesture first depends: When you teach a new behavior with luring, the gesture naturally comes before the word; when you follow Fugazza’s “Do As I Do” social learning protocol, it’s first the verbal cue, then the gesture. 

The take-away message is that it is foolish to deny a species that has receptive human language skills the opportunity to learn words. Talk with your dog. It’s what many people already do anyway. That is how we are programmed. Now we have scientific evidence that it’s a good thing. 
The more you talk with purpose, the more sensitive your dog will be to your voice. He really is bilingual, and will get better the more you do it. He’ll soon listen for words he’s learned and are relevant to his life, and respond to them – and to you. 

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