Do dogs respond better to hand signals and gestures or verbal commands? It’s actually a pretty good question to research for the new dog owner who’s serious about raising a well-behaved pup. While not knowing what to do and where to even start for many of us when it comes to teaching a dog to obey common commands, answering this question wouldn’t be a bad place to set out.
Most basic and beginning training includes a combination of both hand gestures and voice commands for dogs.
“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 this case, the approach of learning both helps dog owners “cover their bases,” ensuring they have some form of reliable communication with their dog regardless of the circumstances. But still, which one is best? Which is most effective for dogs when you do have their attention, their gaze, and no surrounding noise distractions? This is probably something owners of dogs with potential anxiety disorders, hyperactivity, or just dogs that often misbehave, are probably most curious about. No, Down, Stop, and plenty more are what we instinctively bark at our dogs when they misbehave. Meanwhile, some dog owners can simply raise their hand in the air and their dog stops right in its tracks.
As far as research goes, there are many angles to approach the topic and things to learn about what we do know about dogs and communication before even comparing verbal and hand commands. For example, dogs do respond to sound when experiencing anxiety. In fact, in 2017, the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) reported that just like humans, music actually has a proven soothing effect on anxiety and stress. They turned on six different playlists, each featuring its own genre of music, monitoring heart rate, cortisol levels, and behaviors that measure stress levels, like barking or lying down. “Overall, the response to different genres was mixed highlighting the possibility that like humans, our canine friends have their own individual music preferences,” study co-author study Neil Evans said. “That being said, reggae music and soft rock showed the highest positive changes in behavior.”
“Classical music has been shown to reduce stress in kennelled dogs,” they wrote in the Journal of Physiology and Behavior. “However, rapid habituation of dogs to this form of auditory enrichment has also been demonstrated. The current study investigated the physiological and behavioral response of kennelled dogs with five different genres of music including Soft Rock, Motown, Pop, Reggae and Classical, to determine whether increasing the variety of auditory stimulation reduces the level of habituation to auditory enrichment.”
It’s also important to note that dogs are believed to have a limited capacity for learning words. One 2009 study determined that the average dog has the ability to learn about 165 different words — a limited vocabulary compared to humans, of course, but also far beyond the typical “stop” and “no” commands we instinctively order. However, those 165 words actually include hand gestures as well, a vocabulary that’s equivalent to that of a developing two-year-old infant. 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.
What’s important to note about this is that a dog’s limited vocabulary and comprehension in comparison to our own actually necessitates an owner’s need to be specific about their commands as well as intentional. When we have a dog’s full attention, they are engaging in our voice’s pitch, our body language, and even our own excitement and energy level when communicating with them. “Stop!” “No!” and “Don’t Do That!” all mean the same thing to a person, but that’s not entirely true as far as your dog understands. Say, for example, he is jumping on every new guest that comes into the house. If you’re verbalizing that you want them to stop in multiple ways, it’s going to be tough for your pet to understand that “No” and “Stop That” are earning them the same scolding. You’ve given him different commands that mean the same thing, yet he can probably grasp on some level that he’s being scolded. The major confusion here comes from not fully understanding why when you use different verbal commands to do the scolding. Or take, for example, wagging the finger — a universal sign of disapproval. Again, we are imposing our own understood ways of human communication on dogs here. Dogs do know that the gesture is a sign of disapproval and since it’s usually associated with a dominant, imposing, and even angry stance, your pup intuitively knows they’re in trouble when this happens. In these ways, our own inconsistencies of body language and verbal cues can actually cause a dog to experience stress and anxiety, probably making them more hyperactive.
So, finally, which is better or easier for a dog to learn? 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.