A few weeks ago, the dogs started barking at 1:00 a.m. and they just would not shut up. My husband and I ignored them because usually they’re just excited about a deer or coyote or cat. It’s part of living in the country with hound dogs, and we’ve learned to filter it out. In the morning, we woke to discover that my husband’s wayward luggage had been delivered by the airline at 1:00 a.m. That was what our dogs had been barking about. If I had been paying attention, I’m sure I would have noticed a pretty big difference between the barking triggered by strangers in my yard and on my porch in the middle of the night, and the barking that happens when something four-legged and chaseable is in view but out of reach. Though we’re humans and communicate primarily via mouth noises, we’re remarkably able to misinterpret or ignore the mouth noises of other species. We’re all pretty willing to accept this about ourselves, but we’re still surprised when our pets ignore all the talking we do.
The vast majority of dogs don’t want to ignore or displease their people. Dogs communicate with each other primarily though body language, and it’s easy for them to get lost in the sea of our verbal language. How often do you talk to your dog and expect absolutely nothing from him? Talk to other people in front of him? Listen to people talking on the TV or radio? Their world is full of verbal language that doesn’t really pertain to your dog and he’s going to tune most of it out. This is why it’s so much more effective to use distinct, repeatable, non-verbal noises and hand gestures as a component of training.
Clicker training is an excellent example of this concept, and people frequently scoff at it and ask why they can’t use a verbal marker instead. Frequently the marker is something fairly complex for a dog, such as an enthusiastic “GOOD BOY.” To your dog, every variation of your tone, body language and delivery need analysis. If you understand the language, it’s simple. If it’s part of an ocean of gibberish, it’s much less clear. Using a marker noise such as a clicker provides a very clear, easy to understand indication that the dog did the right thing. He’s already trying to figure out what you want, and it’s silly not to make it easier for him in such a simple way. You don’t even need to buy a clicker — many people use the “click” sound made by a retractable pen. Any distinct noise you can make consistently and quickly will work.
Hand signals are useful because our dogs are always watching us. Body language cues tend to be picked up much more quickly than verbal cues because dogs are visual communicators. It’s a simple way to take advantage of how they’re wired. It takes no more time or effort to pair a hand signal with a verbal cue when teaching a new command, and once they’re both learned, you can use one, or both, if you need emphasis in a difficult situation. For commands your dog already knows, you can simply begin pairing hand gestures with the command until your dog begins to make the association. It’s also handy to have your dogs trained with hand signals because many dogs begin to go deaf as they age.
Clicker training is just one example of the distinct noises dogs learn to identify. Cans opening, the sounds of a treat bag, car engines starting, or any number of other noises can come to mean something to your dog, and could potentially be used for training. My dogs are trained to come to vocal commands, but if they’re distracted, a referee’s whistle or the sound of “their” truck cranking will get their attention much more consistently. Again, they don’t want to ignore me, they’re just much better able to get information from cues that don’t sound like the same stream of stuff they listen to all day. It takes less brain power, and sometimes their brains are busy doing other things.
To teach your dog that a specific marker sound means “yes” all you need to do is pair the sound immediately with a treat. After a very few repetitions, use the marker sound to let your dog know they’ve done the right thing and give them a reward. It takes very little time for them to pick it up, and it makes it much easier to train. Soon you’ll be able to “capture” natural behaviors, such as laying down, bowing or jumping on cue, and you’ll be able to shape more complex behaviors by marking tiny progressions until your dog has it.
I hope that this sheds some light on why professional trainers seem to want to add these seemingly useless pieces of equipment and gestures. After a little thought what looks like a stupid gimmick is actually a pretty powerful way to communicate with your dog.