Want Your Dog to Listen? Stop Doing This!

By Yvette Van Veen

© Yvette Van Veen

Dog training often boils down to a single statement. “I want my dog to listen.”

It’s a reasonable request and seems simple.  We ask our dogs to do something.  In return, we want the dog to listen to that request and respond in a timely manner.  Training is the process by which we teach our dog to do this.

People are often disappointed when they wind up with dogs that only seem to listen some of the time.  They are disappointed that their dog only listens if they reach for a cookie.  They are disappointed that they feel the need to repeat themselves.

They say, “He doesn’t listen.  I want him to listen.  He’s stubborn.”

Except the dog is stubbornly following the rules of science doing exactly what we would expect.  Not stubbornly being defiant.  He’s being stubbornly normal.

In this blog, I just want to focus on listening skills – auditory cues (verbal commands).  It’s what people complain about when they say their dog doesn’t listen.  When a dog learns that a sound means a particular skill, and if the dog knows to do this skill only when asked, we say we want “verbal or auditory stimulus control.”

Let’s keep it simple.  We want the dog to listen.

Recently I created a video where I taught my Kip to listen to the cue “touch”. I wanted him to learn to touch his nose to my hand when I said the word “touch.”  I did not want him to touch my hand otherwise.  This includes not touching my hand if I waved it about, if I tapped it with my fingers, wiggled or otherwise enticed him to do so.  Touch ONLY when I say the word “touch.”  I wanted him to listen.  I wanted him to do the skill ONLY when I used the word.

You can see both the what not to do, and the to do by clicking the link here.  You might be surprised to see that that the “do not do” is something you see online frequently.

During that video I emphatically stated.

There is one thing you MUST stop doing if you want verbal stimulus control.  I was firm.  I was adamant.

Don’t move and cue at the same time.

Don’t move your hand.  Don’t lunge with your foot.  Don’t bob your head.  Don’t point.  Don’t fake wave cookies.  Don’t wiggle your fingers.  The motion that seems to elicit the behaviour is sabotaging your verbal stimulus control.

Why do we keep doing it?  Because we generally want our dogs to get the behaviour.  We feel good when the dog does the skill.  We think we are helping.  Except in this case, it’s hindering listening skills – a.k.a. verbal stimulus control.

Your dog will not, CANNOT, get the verbal cue if you keep mashing.  It’s not possible.  Here is why.

It’s called overshadowing.  When a dog perceives two or more cues at the same time, one takes the focus off the other.  Their brain will focus on the most salient.  Their brain picks up on the most noticeable or IMPORTANT stimulus.

What is important to the dog?  It depends on a number of things.  For most general obedience, it’s the visual that is most important.  Their brains are wired to notice sight at the expense of the sound.

Think of overshadowing like being at a show.  Dancers on stage are the main attraction.  You watch them move.  You notice the beauty, the grace, the arms and feet moving.

Somewhere in the orchestra a saxophone plays a beautiful series of notes.  You perceive it.  You don’t really notice it or remember it.  It’s background noise to the main event.  The visual of the dance is the main attraction.

The dancers are the hand gestures.  They grab the dog’s attention.  The saxophone is your voice.  It’s there.  Perceivable?   Yes.  Salient?  No.  There’s a good chance that if you were asked about the song, you might not even remember hearing it.  While this is not a perfect example, it works to show that if your brain is focused on watching dancers, you’re not paying attention to the music.  You’re focused on the most salient at the expense of the other.

With each mashed repetition, the dog focuses on the importance and usefulness of the hand gesture.  The verbal cue becomes unimportant background noise.  Our cues become irrelevant.

As long as the movements are taking centre stage, we are teaching our dogs to IGNORE our voice.

How do we get a dog to listen?  One critical element is to stop mashing cues.

If I wanted you to notice the sax player I would get the dancers off stage.  I would put the sax player on stage with a solo.  Remove the competing visual.  Highlight the music.

That’s kind of exactly what has to happen in dog training. Take the gestures “off stage.”  Which means, stop moving while cueing.  Your verbal needs to take centre stage.  It needs to be noticeable.  You need to make it the salient so the dog can notice that it is special, important and relevant.  If the goal is to have a dog that listens to a verbal cue, the motions have got to stop stealing the limelight.

In the video I did, you can see the difference between cueing while moving and cueing when not moving.  The former interferes with your verbal cue.  The latter allows the dog to notice.  If we want our dogs to listen, then they first have to notice our verbal cue.  It may not be the only step needed.  It’s a critical one.  It is also one that is rather easy to put into practice.  We just have to start thinking about what we are actually doing.

Examples of overshadowing issues during cuing are:

  • Waving a sit sign while saying sit.
  • Holding your hand out like you have a cookie while saying here.
  • Pointing to the mat while saying mat.
  • Wiggling fingers while saying touch.
  • Touching the ground while saying down.
  • Bending to touch the ground while saying down.
  • Stepping towards a jump while saying jump.

I suspect that the overshadowing effect is why people are so convinced that dogs learn hand signals better.  It’s not that dogs can’t learn auditory cues.  It’s that visual cues overshadow auditory ones in most basic obedience skills.

There are exceptions.  Agility people who teach the dog to go left and right, the paw/other paw trick, time based exercises – these have different overshadowing effects.  The visual is not the spotlight hogger in some training scenarios.  The exceptions deserve blogs of their own.

If you want your dog to listen, then stop moving while giving your verbal cue.  It’s sabotaging the goal.  If you want a dog to listen, then you have to make sure you’re not sabotaging yourself.  You might think that the cue is obvious.  Science is harsh taskmaster.  You can’t wish away overshadowing.  If your dog sees the cue, it doesn’t actually matter if you think the sound is obvious.  It’s not obvious to them.

About the Author

Yvette Van Veen PCT-A is dog behavior consultant and owner of Awesome Dogs, in Dorchester, Ontario, Canada.  She is also a long-time columnist and multiple Dog Writers Association of America award nominee, and currently writes a regular column for The Toronto Star.  She has worked with rescue dogs for more than 14 years, focusing mainly on rural, roaming and feral rescue dogs from communities throughout Ontario and Quebec, Canada.  She is also the creator of Awesome Dogs Shareables, an educational meme site providing resources and training tips in small, shareable formats.

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