There are a handful of verbal commands and physical gestures paired together that every dog owner on the planet uses to communicate with their pup. Open palm with the hand and arm extended out front, coupled with a stern “stay.” Pointing and motioning down with that same extended hand as you politely ask, “sit.” These are just a few of the basics and they’re fairly universal and elementary. But did you know haptics — the use of technology that stimulates the senses of touch and motion, especially to reproduce in remote operation or computer simulation the sensations that would be felt by a user interacting directly with physical objects — can be a surprisingly effective way to communicate with dogs as well.
Data presented at the recent 2019 IEEE World Haptics Conference in Tokyo reported that gentle vibrations can be used as cues and commands that are as effective as vocal commands. And that research has been used to develop a new dog-training vest designed by Israeli scientists at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. With special motors placed in specific spots on their orange vest, a remote control can cue vibrations in place of verbally ordering things like “back up,” “lie down,” and “come on.”
Considering most of our communication with dogs is verbal and physical, relying on them to understand our specific tone or urgency, this opens up an entirely new avenue of training and interacting with our dogs. The vest, researchers believe, can be used to effectively train service animals like Tai, a Labrador mix who failed his seeing-eye guide exams as a puppy but demonstrated an effective grasp of commands with the new vest. Developers of the vest pointed out that search and rescue dogs or tracking dogs, for example, often work at a distance from their handlers, either out of sight or earshot. A vest like theirs could be monumental in maintaining communication remotely.
“For a single command, the test subject’s sensitivity to the haptic command was high, only slightly shy of its sensitivity to the vocal command,” the scientists reported. “Target behaviors were reliably executed for the “spin” command, with only one out of 18 commands missed- this is, in fact, a higher execution rate that of vocal commands, where 3 out of 18 were missed. Furthering the ability to understand a single haptic command, we show that our test subject can discern between different types of haptic cues. It is evident that the pronged motor housings successfully deliver haptic cues to non-bony areas of the dog.”
It’s important to recognize the research only specifically noted the vest was more effective than verbal commands. Physical gestures are actually often more effective than vocal cues when communicating with canines for a number of reasons. For one, our inflections, tone, and even tempo in which we speak are all factors that dogs don’t differentiate from words in the same way we do. Yelling “sit” and gently commanding “sit” can communicate wildly different from a canine’s perspective, especially when taking into perspective our posture or other factors that can influence the way that command is used. Dogs also have a limited vocabulary compared to humans, or at least a more narrow capacity for retaining vocabulary. While dogs are complex and intelligent in terms of their own social skills, one 2009 study revealed that most dogs are about as smart as a two-year-old child when it comes to processing language and vocabulary. That study was based on a language development test, in which they determined the average dog has the capacity to learn 165 words, including signals and gesture. This vocabulary and comprehension is similar to a developing two-year-old. And the absolute smartest dogs, by this scale, have the capacity to learn as many as 250 words. The Border Collies, Poodles, and German Shepherds in the top of that pack are on par with a child at two and a half years.
Physical gestures, however, are far more effective when communicating with dogs.
In Italy, researchers studied this very thing with 10 Golden retrievers and 15 Labrador retrievers, all recruited at the Italian School of Water Rescue Dogs and already qualified as water rescue teams. According to the report, the dogs were already trained to obey basic commands like "sit", "lie down”, "stay", "come", "fetch", and “turn" as well as hand signals.
In the test, the dogs were given those same common commands both verbally and physically. First, the dogs were given four basic commands delivered by their owner using only hand signals. In the second test, the owners stood with their hands loosely by their sides and gave the same commands verbally. And finally, in a third test, the dogs were given verbal and physical commands at once. But the catch here was that the commands were always incompatible. “Lie down” was used with the gesture for sitting. ‘Sit down” was paired with the signal for lying down. “Come” was used with the signal for staying put, and “stay” was paired with the gesture indicating come here.
What researchers found was that the dogs obeyed hand gestures on their own with no voice command 99% of the time, while verbal commands only commanded 82% correctness in behavior. When the hand gestures and voice commands were paired together, the dogs responded to hand gestures 70% of the time. So even when you’re verbally telling your dog something, he’s more than twice as likely to obey your body language or hand gestures as commands.
“Most dog handlers will tell you that which set of instructions you should select depends upon the situation, says Stanley Coren PhD., DSc, FRSC. “If you are in a noisy setting then perhaps it is better to use hand signals since your voice command may get lost in the ambient sound. Alternatively, if your dog is looking away and not making direct eye contact with you, it seems reasonable to use a voice command.”
“In my world of conservation dogs, the possibilities of using this vibration technology with tracking dogs has huge potential,” says Will Powell, a canine expert who trains sniffer dogs for African Wildlife Foundation and other anti-poaching programs in Africa. “Dogs perceive their environment through their senses, and touch is a surprisingly important sense for a dog,” adds Powell, who was not involved in the new vibrating vest research. “Any working dog disciplines that involves distant work could benefit from this technology.”