So you have a verbal cue that you want your dog to respond to without any additional signals – what do you do?
Ditch the Lure
Make sure your puppy/dog can respond to the verbal cue and signal without you holding any food in your hand. It’s hard to fade a signal if your dog is following a lure! Teaching your dog that responding correctly can cause you to produce a reward is an important lesson and can be helped by using a marker cue such as “yes” when your dog performs the action you will reward.
Talk First, Move after
Make sure you are giving your verbal cue (ie. “down” for lie down) PRIOR to moving your hand. Then give your down signal. What we are doing is setting up a chain “down” = hand signal = down action will be rewarded. Since our dogs are so tuned into our movements, if we give the verbal cue “down” at the same time as we move our hand to give the signal, the vast majority of the time the dog will perceive the signal and respond correctly without paying much attention to the word. In effect, presenting both cues at the same time allows the signal to overshadow the verbal cue. By presenting the verbal cue followed by the signal, we take advantage of our dogs tendency to anticipate once they realize that the word predicts the signal. This is a difficult step for us as a very verbal species!
Fade the Signal
Plan to do this gradually – don’t just stop giving a signal that your dog has been relying on. If you have been moving your hand all the way to the floor to signal a lie down cue, start by moving your hand toward the floor but leaving a slight gap. Reward your dog for lying down. (If you are focusing on fading a signal, reward every correct response so that your dog develops a strong reward history for lying down, and isn’t confused about why they sometimes get a reward and sometimes don’t. We don’t want them worrying about that right now, we want them responding enthusiastically and quickly to a cue to lie down.) Over time, gradually shorten your signal motion.
Check for Inadvertent Signals or Cues
This is why most obedience competitors train with other people – it is so easy for us to make movements that we aren’t aware of, and in a sport where points off for those movements matter, it’s important to weed them out. At home, it can make the difference between your dog responding to you or ignoring you. If there is a movement you are making that your dog thinks is part of the cue but you aren’t doing it intentionally, then if you don’t do that movement, your dog is unlikely to respond. The best way to check is to either video yourself or enlist a buddy. If you find that being on the spot at home affects your dog’s response, being on the spot may be changing your normal movements.
Check for Double Duty Cues
Check for verbal cues doing double duty – ie. one word with two different meanings. The most common one I encounter is down. If “down” means lie down on the floor, then if your dog jumps up and you cue “down” your dog should lie down on the floor. Now, I rarely see that actually happen. Sometimes the dog returns his/her feet to the floor, often not. Using two meanings for one word is not ideal communication with our dogs and can lead to confusion or the dog relying on context or other cues (such as a hand signal) to determine the correct response. Rename one cue or the other ie. “down” = lie down on the floor, “off” = feet on the floor OR “down” = feet on the floor , “settle” = lie down on the floor. It doesn’t matter which word you choose, just that you (and your family) are consistent.
It’s helpful to have a dog that will respond to either a verbal cue or a signal around the house. If your hands are full, you can give a verbal cue. If you are talking to someone, you could use a signal. And later in life, should your dog’s eyesight or hearing deteriorate, you may be very glad that you taught those verbal cues and signals separately. Plus, it is a fun challenge that you can work on at home without needing much space or equipment.