Mimi was so pleased that in just one session she had trained her dog, Jake, to sit that she called her husband, Will, over to see their progress.
"Sit," she said to Jake, who wagged his tail and looked at her. "Sit!" -- more wagging. "Sit! Sit! Sit!" Jake continued to stand there. After her husband walked away, Mimi said, "What's up, Jake?" pointed her finger at him and said, "Sit" at which point Jake did. What's going on here?
The answer is probably that Jake has learned how to sit in response to a cue from Mimi, but that cue isn't the word "Sit." Jake is probably responding to the pointing motion of her finger and not to what she is saying, and when Will was there, Mimi didn't point.
Humans most often express themselves vocally, whereas our dogs communicate primarily with visual signals. Dogs are watching us and we are talking to them. This explains so much of the confusion between our otherwise largely compatible species. Dogs can't figure out what their humans are trying to convey and we can't figure out why our dogs aren't listening.
Dogs often pick up on visual cues that we use, inadvertently or not, when training them. So, if, during training, we use a hand gesture while saying, "Sit," most dogs will learn that the hand gesture means to put their bottom on the ground long before they figure out that the word "Sit" means to do the same thing. If we are aware that the visual signal overshadows the vocal one, problems can be avoided. We can teach our dogs to sit when both cues are given simultaneously and then actively teach the vocal cue once the visual one already means something to our dogs.
The key is the timing. Begin by teaching your dog to sit using both the vocal and the visual cues you want your dog to know. Once he responds to them together, start separating them. Give the verbal cue "Sit" a half a second before you give the visual cue, such as a pointed finger. After many repetitions of sitting and getting reinforced for doing so, your dog will learn that the word "Sit" predicts the hand gesture whose meaning he already knows. He will eventually respond by sitting when he hears "Sit" even without the visual signal.
Research has shown that dogs learn visual signals faster than vocal signals. Therefore, it is most likely that if your dog is sitting when presented with both cues, he already knows the visual cue on its own. To check for sure, you can experiment by giving just the visual cue and see if your dog sits.
Many people, including Mimi, have inadvertently done the reverse experiment in which they test their dog's ability to respond to the vocal cue alone, and found that he does not. Showing off what our dogs know seems to make many of us inhibited about using a lot of motion, and we choose just to speak instead. The result is that a dog we think knows how to sit on cue appears to have no idea what is being asked of him.
Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a certified applied animal behaviorist, certified pet dog trainer and author who specializes in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavioral problems, including aggression, in the domestic dog.