I was asked by someone the other day, “What kind of signals do you prefer when giving a command- verbal, or visual?”
It was a great question. The short answer is: both, but visual I think is easier for the dog. People are very verbal with their dogs. You hear it all the time- maybe with yourself. “Sit, Fido, Sit. Sit. Sit! Sit Down!” We’re verbal with each other, as well- verbal communication makes up a large part of how we transfer information from one to another (the deaf population and the written word being two large and important exceptions).
Dogs, on the other hand, are very visual. Most of their communication is done through body language, which is visual in nature. That is why you can talk to your dog until you’re blue in the face sometimes, but once you stand in a particular way, your dog starts listening to you! Chances are, if this is you, that your dog is looking to you for cues from your body language, not your words. Try this sometime: Videotape yourself and memorize your body language when you give a simple cue your dog knows and listens to- Sit or Down being likely candidates. Then, move in that same way, but tell your dog a nonsense word: “Oogabooga,” for instance. Chances are your dog will respond as if you had given your actual command- as long as your body language is consistent enough for your dog to have picked up on it.
This is why many times when someone comes to me and their dog knows a command but is not following it, I look at their body language. If they can consistently give one body language signal for each command (and it could be subtle, if you want- show dogs are often trained with subtle signals), many times their dog starts obeying like magic (so long as there isn’t a motivation issue). Body language also frees you up to communicate to other humans at the same time- such as if you are on the phone. Give a signal (often this is a hand signal) and pair it with the verbal signal until you can simply give the hand signal and your dog obeys. Or better yet, if you haven’t yet trained the command, give the hand signal first or right with the verbal cue while introducing the command to your dog!
Be aware of your body language, and have fun speaking Dog!