Saturday, October 30, 2010

Don't Gibber While You Train

This is me in one of my first obedience classes with Chloe:

“All right, we’re going to do this, aren’t we? We’re going to listen to daddy and do this right and Rick will be impressed, won’t he. We want Rick to be impressed even if we don’t care what daddy thinks, do we. All right, here goes, are you listening? SIT!

Rick Manley of the Phoenix Field and Obedience Club scowled at me. “Ensminger, what are you telling the dog to do? If I can’t tell, the dog probably can’t either. Stop gibbering.”

I thought he was being a bit sensitive. It couldn’t have been that confusing. After all, I said SIT in a different and louder tone than everything else and I paused for a second or two before saying it. The gibbering was only my way of keeping the frustration of those early classes from getting to me. I also thought that the monologue might keep Chloe’s attention on me, something that didn’t come naturally to her back then.

Now there is scientific proof Rick was right.

Two researches videotaped 56 handlers giving the SIT command to see how verbal and nonverbal factors affected the dog’s response. The videotapes were made during obedience and agility classes in Switzerland and England. Dogs ranged from four months to nearly ten years old, but the mean age was two. A broad range of breeds were involved. Handlers were also of all ages.

The videotapes were studied to see whether the dogs watched the handlers giving the commands, whether the handlers watched the dogs, whether the handlers spoke other words or mumbled while giving commands, what movements the handlers made while giving commands, whether treats were given or handlers made motions suggesting they would give treats, and so on. As to the dogs, the researchers recorded whether the licked their lips, blinked, yawned, scratched, sniffed, turned their heads away from the handler, shook themselves, and so on. Even “proxemics” were recorded—a new word to me referring to the orientation and distance of the dog and handler.

The researchers recorded whether a command was obeyed, and whether it was repeated. They were particularly interested in the information conveyed to the dog in the few seconds before a command was actually given. Two factors were found to reduce a dog’s obedience: the animal not paying attention (no surprise), and the handler saying things other than the command before actually giving the command.

The researchers designed a separate study to look at the second finding, that additional verbiage reduced a dog’s obedience. Handlers were told to stand with their hands behind their backs and look straight ahead while giving a command to the dog, which was seated to the handler’s left. The handler was to do one of three things: (1) use the dog’s name followed immediately by the command, (2) use the dog’s name, pause for two seconds, then give the command, and (3) use a word the dog did not know (“banana”), followed by the command. The commands could be DOWN, PAW, or UFF (telling the dog to jump onto an elevated surface). Some dogs knew the commands they were given; for others, the commands were being taught.

Many handlers chat with their dogs “in quite a complex way,” like my gibbering. The researchers found that the name + two second pause and the novel word + command significantly decreased the correct response to the command. However, if the dog had fully learned the command, the use of the dog’s name, with or without a pause, did not significantly reduce the number of correct responses. Only the new word did. Thus, dogs found it particularly difficult to deal with a command they did not fully know when there was a new word preceding it. The researchers concluded that “responsiveness may be affected by non-informative verbiage preceding important information.” In layman's terms, don’t gibber before a command.

I’ve only summarized part of this interesting study. The researchers also concluded that dogs found changes in location difficult in learning new commands. They summarized: “Dog handlers should be aware of how different types of verbal information and the change of context can influence their dog’s responsiveness and of the extent to which dogs need to be taught to generalize command stimuli to novel contexts.” Braem, M.D., and Mills, D.S. (2010) Factors Affecting Response of Dogs to Obedience Instruction: A Field and Experimental Study. Applied Animal Behavior Science 125, (1-2), 47-55.


  1. Hello John. John Ensminger in Dallas, Texas here. Is Chloe a soft coated Wheaten Terrier? I have a soft coated Wheaten named Riley that is 10 months old.

  2. Nice and very informative. I am studying this problem and I must say that your article has helped me a lot.