Say It or See It: The effect of either verbal or gestural signalling on visual orientation of the domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris) towards its handler

19 Jan 2022

By Dr. Hazel Rooney

Take home message: Given the increasing popularity of the domestic dog and its diverse commercial roles, defining the most effective training methods has become economically and socially valuable. This study has revealed that the domestic dog looks at its handler more often and for a longer duration after a training session involving only hand signal cues than a session using only verbal cues. However, this effect may only be short lived, and therefore, further study is needed into determining if further training in this manner will equate to further visual orientation to handler.  

Introduction: Given the increasing popularity of the domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris) and its diverse commercial roles, defining the most effective training methods has become economically and socially valuable. Both successful intraspecific communication and consistent attention from the dog are crucial components in training, with visual orientation toward the handler a vital element. Increasing attentional focus will increase performance when considering the efficacy of training methods. Previous research into training methodology has covered both the need for attentional focus, and how dogs perceive and process cues, however none have examined the empirical relationship between the two, more specifically if giving either gestural or verbal cues affects the frequency and duration of visual orientation towards the handler. Therefore, the overall aim of this study was to determine whether using either gestural or auditory cues during a training session has a subsequent effect of the frequency and duration of visual orientation towards the owner. In addition, type of reinforcement used in training, prior training undertaken by the dyad and demographic factors such as breed and age, were noted and their relationship to overall visual focus on handler examined. 

Experimental design: A total of 31 dogs (21 M and 10 F) and their owner/handler were selected for use in this observational study. The breed of dogs varied, and the age of dogs ranged from 5 months to 11 years, with handlers ranging from 19 to 63 years of age. All dogs in the study had previously completed either one or two six-week course of group classes with Dogworthy Training and Behaviour or had had significant advanced training such as being owned by a professional positive reinforcement trainer or completing advanced training classes with Dogworthy Training and Behaviour. Handlers were recruited by responding to a mailshot of previous and existing clients of Dogworthy Training and Behaviour, and after initial screening for necessary permissions and medical disclosure, conducted verbally, each dyad experienced two trials, ranging from one to three weeks apart. The experiments were carried out at Dogworthy Training and Behaviour’s usual training ground, Northolt Rugby Football Club, Greenford, where the dyads had completed at least one of their courses. In this repeated measures study with randomised conditions, dog/handler dyads were given a training task using either acoustic signals only (ASO) using verbal cues or gestural signals only (GSO) via hand signals. To help counteract any possible order effect caused by the design, the two treatments were randomly assigned by coin toss. 

Materials and Methods: Upon completion of the training sequence stage, dogs were then observed on a casual walk in a controlled environment. Spontaneous visual orientations (SVOs) and prolonged gazes (PGs) directed towards the handler were counted at minute one, three and five, using ad lib focal sampling. Behavioural responses were recorded directly onto an Excel spreadsheet. After collection of data directly onto an Excel spreadsheet using a Microsoft Go© tablet, formulae were inserted to code categorical data and to total counts of SVOs and PGs. When looking for an association between SVOs and PGs, and between age and SVOs, Spearman’s Correlation tests were run using Minitab© V17. Wilcoxon Matched Pairs tests were run to check for differences between the numbers of SVOs between the treatments of acoustic and gestural signals, and between sexes for total SVOs. Friedman’s ANOVA tests would have been the preferred option for examining differences in SVOs over the three time periods used, between the reinforcement methods and the training levels of the dogs, considering both treatments. However, due to the frequent numbers of nil results, a Chi Squared Goodness of Fit test was used. A Mann Whitney test was performed to look for differences between sexes. 

Results: Results from this study showed that there was a strong directional association between frequency and duration of visual orientation to handler and total SVOs decreased over time. There was a significant difference between SVOs in the ASO and GSO conditions, with dogs giving more visual orientation when only gestural signals were given. Dogs with more training history gave more overall SVOs, although this also this may also be related to age. Dogs reinforced with intermittent treats were also found to give more overall SVOs. The results of this study can be used to refine the effectiveness of training techniques, thereby furthering welfare, and bettering relationships. 

This study was carried out by, Katrina Williams, while studying her for BSc in Applied Animal Behaviour at Sparsholt University Centre. Katrina would like to thank her family, her friends, and the staff at her university, with a special mention to Kerry Hunt, for providing her with encouragement, support, guidance during her studies. Katrina would also like to sincerely thank all the wonderful clients at Dogworthy Training and Behaviour, the dogs that participated in the study and her very own dog Spud! I wish Katrina the very best of luck with studies and know that she has a very bright future ahead.  


Dr. Hazel Rooney, Pig Technical Co-Ordinator, Alltech Ireland  

Hazel has been a member of the BSAS Early Career Council since 2020. She works to help pig producers, feed mills and vets to improve the health, welfare, and productivity of pigs in the Irish and European marketplaces.