If you watch dogs interact with one another in their daily lives, you’ll notice a lot of body language and rituals. Yes you will hear an occasional bark and, during friendly play, you might hear some rumbles and play growls. But, for the most part, dogs communicate non-verbally.
You may know that dog actors are cued from off-camera by a trainer using hand signals. If you watch agility trials, you might hear some encouraging words from the human half of the team, but the directions the dog is taking are actually coming from the handler’s body language.
As we walk about the city, we seldom see people giving hand signals to their dogs. Occasionally we’ll see someone teaching a young pup to sit before crossing a street using both vocal and hand commands. But, by the time the pup is grown, the humans have reverted to their own native, verbal language without considering the canine preference for gestures.
Studying the Issue
As dogs take on more and more service and working roles in our society, researchers are studying the effectiveness of various communication methods. Linda P. Case, from “The Science Dog,” recently reported on a study conducted on 25 certified water rescue dogs to compare their response to verbal and gestural cues.
She summarized the results saying, “This pilot study suggests that when dogs are trained to both hand signals and verbal commands, they will respond most consistently to hand signals.” As a side note, it was also found that, “Female dogs showed a strong preference for responding to hand gesture cues, while males were more likely to respond equally to both types of cue.”
You can use the standard, accepted hand signals or invent your own. All three of our dogs have responded to me pointing at people, places, or things. This can be wonderfully helpful. When in the midst of a conversation with a friend, we can point to a park bench and Poppy will jump up and settle down.
We’ll also point to a favorite person coming down the sidewalk so that Poppy can enjoy both the anticipation and the reality of seeing someone. (It also means that the person is treated to a, “Wow, I’m so glad you are here,” welcome from Poppy.)
If Poppy is barking in response to a noisy dog or neighbor in our building, we tell her to go to her settle spot, using elaborate hand gestures that look like we’re directing an airliner to its gate. Our hands reinforce the direction we want her to take and where we want her to be. It looks silly, but it seems to work. Sometimes the gestures have to be big and exaggerated to command the attention of an excited pup.
For professional trainers – those who work with service dogs; first responders handling K9 partners trained to detect guns, bombs, drugs, or find criminals; or someone like me out for a walk with my dog – hand signals, gestures, and body language can be more effective than repeating words over and over to get a dog to perform. It’s time we considered using canine language to communicate with our dogs.
Words: Penny & Ed Cherubino
Photos: ©2017 Penny & Ed Cherubino
(Adapted for BostonZest from one of our City Paws newspaper columns.)