Dogs are excellent at reading our body language, much better than we read them, although if you want to learn more about a dog’s body language, this is a good article.
Dogs find it much easier to read what people are saying with their bodies than with spoken language. In a study of 25 dogs who were taught both a hand signal and a verbal command for various behaviours, the dogs responded accurately to 99% of hand signals 82% of verbal commands. What was particularly interesting though was that when the dogs where given both a verbal command and a hand signal, but they conflicted, for example the verbal command ‘sit’ a coupled with the hand signal for ‘lie’, 70% of the dogs chose to obey the hand signal rather than the verbal command.
It’s good to have both a hand signal and a verbal command; as your dog gets older, he may loose either his eyesight or his hearing.
In puppy class, initially we normally teach a hand signal as the luring action turns in to the hand signal.
To avoid trying to teach the dog too many things at the same time, we don’t add a verbal command until the dog is reliably performing the behaviour using the hand signal.
Dogs can have multiple ‘commands’ for one behaviour; for example the action of raising your hand to your shoulder, the word ‘sit’, the word ‘hello’, stopping at a curb, getting the lead out could all mean sit to your dog.
When adding a new command to a behaviour, you use the new command first, followed by the command that the dog already knows. For example, ‘sit’ followed by the hand signal. The second command can be phased out over time.
Avoid using a verbal command unless you KNOW that your dog will perform the action. Saying ‘sit, sit, sit, sit’ to your dog will not only devalue the word, but you’ll be more and more frustrated, making the training no fun for the dog.