Verbal Cues

There is a current trend in agility to train your dog to respond to a verbal cue for behaviors such as wrapping a wing of a jump, finding the back side of a jump, coming between two obstacle as in a threadle and many other behaviors. I love training cues for my dogs in agility especially for distance work. I decided with my two young dogs that I would train verbal directional cues for wraps on jumps. First it took me a long time to come up with two different sounding words. The criteria for the word choice was: 1. It had to have a way to make sense to me so I could remember it easily. 2. It could not sound similar to other words I have trained. 3. I wanted short one syllable words. I heard these words used and decided to try them. Loop for left turn wrap and Dig for right turn wrap. Second I needed a training plan. Most verbal cues in agility are supported with body language. But I wanted these words to be independent of body language. This requires much more training. I broke it down to the following: I needed to get the behavior to occur. Label the behavior when it happened. Start using the label or cue earlier to where it precedes the behavior. Train the cue from both sides of my body. Add distance from the jump. Add distractions such as toy or food on ground, then add other nearby obstacles as distractions. Add my motion. Add a sequence of obstacles leading into it. That is a lot of steps. I also figured I may have to add additional steps if problems arose. Then I needed to set my criteria for each step. At step 3, I needed to do a lot of reps until the dog could reliably do the correct behavior on the first cue and do the correct behavior on at least 80% of the reps. I needed to have this before I worked on different sides and distractions. Then at step 4, I needed similar criteria. Then I started my training. My young dog was about 11 or 12 months old when I started with just a wing. It was slow going. She could do it beautifully with my body language but without it she was less than 50 percent. Nevertheless I persisted and 4 months later we have made very little progress. It has made me stop and think. Take my other young dog who is about 2 years old. I started her with this training just a few weeks ago. In her first two sessions she was already at 90% correct. This is fascinating to me. Some factors involved include: 1 Dogs are NOT verbal beings. But they have evolved along side humans and have been able to quickly learn our body language and tone of voice. 2. Training behaviors to be completely on a verbal cue can take many many reps and still not be 100%. Or it can take relatively few reps with a dog who is naturally very verbal. 3. The words used need to make sense to the human so they can come out of your mouth under pressure. 4. When a dog does have some pure verbal cues it can be very fun to work with a dog like that. So I have two dogs who are at the opposite ends of the verbal spectrum. One dog learns verbal cues very quickly and actually seems to prefer them to body language. The other dog follows body language so easily and has a hard time listening for verbal cues. I also think humans fall on a spectrum in their ability to use verbal cues well. I have taught left and right to my dogs for 20 plus years and seldom have I said the wrong word. But I watch and hear many people say the wrong obstacle name or the wrong directional time and time again, especially under pressure of a trial. So before you spend a lot of time training verbal cues to your dog really think about how will using these cues help your performance. Will you be able to say the correct cue when running in a trial environment? Do you plan to train for a lot of distance where verbal cues are most helpful? Is your dog easy to train verbal cues? How can I tell if my dog is good with verbal cues? Have you been able to train "sit," "down," release word or other verbal cues without any motion and with distractions? Was it hard or easy or in between for the dog? For you? Really stop and look at behaviors you think are solid on verbal cue alone and try the cue with NO movement and see. In agility it is so easy to overlay body language with verbal cues and think we have taught a verbal only cue. There is so much more proofing and detailed training needed to truly train a verbal only cue. Bottom line, if your body language will be there to support the verbal cue 90% plus of the time you probably do not need a verbal cue for that behavior. Look at the courses you run and what you need for skills before spending a lot of time training something that may be incredibly difficult for your dog to learn and not really needed.

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