Words of Command (A discussion !!)
In 1976 I joined the Royal Army Veterinary Corps as a dog handler. Our introduction was a two week course along with volunteers from other regiments. On this course you learned the care and handling including basic commands. The dogs we trained with were old service dogs, no longer fit enough to work but still with enough juice in them to lead us novices a merry dance. Words of command were simple then, there was a book with a list and that was that. Thirty six years later and I now know there are no absolutes, and thank goodness for that.
The primary method we use of communicating with a dog is the voice, our body language will also be contributing whether we want it to or not, however that is another article.
When using voice commands I think there are three guidelines we can all agree on;
Simplicity – ideally 1 or 2 syllables.
Distinctiveness – as far as possible.
Consistency – using same command for each action.
The dog’s ability to discriminate human spoken words was reported by Buytendijk and Fischel (1936). This was based on training a dog to perform an action reliably on hearing a command, which was followed by tests in which the phonemes of the spoken word were changed systematically . They noticed that the beginning of the words is of more significance for the dog, because it was more likely to fulfil the command than if the change occurred at the end of the word. The dog probably started to react as soon as it heard the familiar phonemes.
So for example;
Sit – that’s simple, however, for the reasons given in the preceding paragraph it is the only command I use starting with ‘s’.
Stand – I use ‘auf‘, this word follows the three guidelines, and only has to make sense to me and the dog!
Speak – I use ‘back‘, this is something from my police dogs, when dealing with an unruly crowd I will tell them to; “Get back”, which helps encourage the dog.
Stay – I never use the command, as I believe it is redundant. If I tell the dog ‘sit‘, ‘down‘ or ‘auf’ ! I expect it to remain in that position until released, ‘free‘, or given another command.
Wait – I will use that to stop the dog coming forward at a doorway, for instance, the dog soon learns that I don’t care what position it takes up.
Heel – is obvious, but I will use ‘Here‘ if I just want the dog in the vicinity. I know this breaks rule 2 but, it demonstates another guideline, in that, you must be comfortable with the commands that are used.
Graeme Sims often gives displays working half a dozen sheepdogs at a time. In his book ‘Dog Whisperer’ he talks about the importance of training the dogs individually, and suggests using different languages. He also believes;
“Different dogs prefer different languages: a timid dog will work better in French because the language is soft and soothing; a bold, tough dog will like German, as it is curt and full of authority.”
He also talks about shepherds in Devon singing commands and recommends;
“I would recommend the sung command not only for a dog that is growing deaf but also to attract any dog’s attention.”
Unfortunately my singing voice is as poor as my linguistic abilities, so I am the wrong person to test those theories. In the case of using French or German I do wonder if you instinctively take on the aura/energy/persona of the racial stereotype. The timid dog would then respond to the French romantic, as the bold dog responds to no nonsense German efficiency!
This brings us to other factors that can affect words of command and the dog’s abilities to learn and understand them. ‘Good boy/girl’ is not a command but it is essential in getting the message across. One of my main tenet’s has always been the importance of a full charged ‘good boy/girl’. As in clicker training, the phrase has to be taught/charged using food, toys, and play reward. Never pass up the opportunity to create that association whether the dog is 8 weeks or 8 years old.
I like the idea of testing the dog’s understanding of the commands. In ‘Expert Obedience Training for Dogs’, Winifred Strickland advises, on the recall ,turning 90 and/or 180 degrees as the dog returns so that the dog has to make a determined effort to sit in the correct position. I also try to give other commands, out of sight to ensure that the dog is not picking up clues from my body language.
One Dog at a Time
You can only train one dog at a time, but when both are trained it is easy to work them both. If one dog is already trained it may help you to train the other. For example, a dog that already knows how to sit will, by its example, speed up teaching the other to do the same. But for most of the time you need to train each dog on its own.
If you are training two dogs, you will need to vary their commands. There are two very effective ways, that I know of, to do this. First, you can preface the command with the dog’s name: for example ‘Bob sit’, ‘Meg stand’. This method has the advantage of enabling you to direct the command at one dog. It has the added bonus of being understood by both dogs when you remove the name from the command. No name equals a joint command.
My preferred method, though, is to use a different language for each dog, which is much less complicated than it sounds. Because I only ever train one dog at a time it is the only one that, through exposure and repetition, responds to the language being used.
When I put the dogs together, each only obeys the language they have been trained in. Over the course of several years both dogs have usually learned to understand the other language but each still obeys only its own.
You do not need to speak the languages fluently as you only need to learn a few commands. My method of learning is to ask, say, a German friend to give me the phonetic version of ‘sit’, ‘stand’, ‘stop’’ etc. The dog will take longer than you to understand the commands, so you will have more than enough time to practise the words, and even if you are only one word ahead of the dog you are in business.
In a sheepdog brace trial I would work in Welsh and English. Each language sounds completely different to the dog.’ Lie down’ becomes ‘Gore vath’, ‘Walk on slowly’ becomes ‘Ara deig’ (both of these have been typed phonetically).
Different dogs prefer different languages: a timid dog will work better in French because the language is soft and soothing; a bold, tough dog will like German, as it is curt and full of authority.
Once both dogs are trained and start to work together, be careful that the loud voice you use to address the tough dog does not have a disturbing affect on the timid one. Here you have options: you can gradually soften the harsher of the two tones, or be prepared to comfort the more timid dog. Although the timid dog knows that the harsher command was not directed at it, there is a danger that the unaccustomed strength of the command will unsettle it.
My impression with timid dogs is that they think the fault is always theirs. I remember training a dog for a Swiss vet: we had a choice of two languages, as she lived on the border where both German and French were spoken. We chose French because it suited the nature of the dog.
One of my bitches responds to a North Wales dialect and another of the dogs work on more of a South Wales accent; when they work together they are quite able to distinguish the subtle difference between ‘Diddy mar’ and ‘Derry mar’ (again given phonetically).
When I tell Megan that she is a ‘Cariad varch’ (a little darling), she fully understands the complimentary nature of the words and revels in the praise. Dogs hear the sound, hence my phonetic spellings of the foreign command words.
When I worked on farms in Devon I noticed that shepherds would use certain words, which they ‘sang’ rather than shouted. The practise is probably hundreds of years old. At the time I used them too, but did not really appreciate why. The sung words could be heard from one valley to another and were quite clear even from two miles away.
Instead of shouting, ‘Here’, the shepherd would sing, in a tenor pitch, ‘Yer’; sometimes it would be stretched to ‘Yeerr’; and at other times they would sing a repeat of ‘Yer,yer,yer’.
As my old dog Bob grows deafer I use the ‘yer’ rather than whistle for ‘come’ or ‘hear’. Even though the whistle is far louder he doesn’t hear it, but he always hears the sung command.
I would recommend the sung command not only for a dog that is growing deaf but also to attract any dog’s attention.
I used the sung command for a lemon-and-white Cocker Spaniel we once had. As she got older Sally became blind. Indoors, everything was fine providing we did not move any of the furniture. Outdoors, though, the problems were greater. Sally would still come off her lead for exercise, and for much of the time her mother, Penny, would nudge her away from snow- or water – filled drainage ditches. But in open spaces she would treat the sung commands as a kind of location finder so that she could stay close to me.
These old Devon shepherds knew a thing or two, which is hardly surprising given that the skills of working with a dog have been passed down many generations.