Saw an article by Sophia Yin, DVM* in Bark Magazine, (dated Winter ’05, but I think it is still relevant) the other day while waiting at the vet’s for the outcome of Wookie’s tests. Poor guy, he’s 13, and things are just starting to fail him left and right… He’s a grumpy, cantankerous guy, but we all love him just the same. I swear that dog can read minds, but that is a topic for another day…
Back to the article, the title caught my eye, “The Medium is the Message: Research shows that actions, not words count most when communicating with dogs.”
Many of you know of my work in non-verbal communications and presentation coaching. (If not, click here for the details.) Anyway, research lead by Nicola Rooney at the Anthrozoology Institute** in the U.K., cataloged both verbal and visual (non-verbal) commands used by dog owners when soliciting play… the research found that the dogs responded to the visual commands with greater frequency and accuracy than the verbal.
They also discovered that when two different commands where given at the same time, e.g., verbal “Sit” and visual “Down,” the visual command was responded to with a higher percentage than the verbal.
Not too surprising, given research into human behavior with incongruence of verbal and non-verbal communication. The non-verbal usually takes precedence in the recipients mind.
The surprising part of the study was that when a dog did not respond to the visual command, instead of responding to the verbal command the dog did nothing a higher percentage of the time.
In another study by Daniel Mills***, his research found the same bias toward the visual (non-verbal) command. He went on to study the “emotional content” of the message—by commands expressed in a neutral tone, an ending inflection ascending (considered happy) and an ending inflection descending (considered stern or angry) and a gloomy version where the handler, sighed first. Predictably, the dogs responded more often to the “happy” tone, with more variation of responses with the stern and gloomy tones.
So, what’s my point to this long introduction?
Mills parting quote in the article; “…when your voice tells the dog to do one thing, but your body tells her to do another, she’s not being stubborn—she may just be reading a different message than the one you think you’re sending.” Adding, “…when your dog gives you that blank stare after you utter a command you think she knows—she has a good reason. Because when communicating with your pet, it’s not just what we say, it’s how we say it and whether our verbal and visual cues are sending the same message.”
By becoming aware of all the cues we send to our dogs and how the dog perceives them, we can cut down on the number of everyday frustrations with our precious little guys… Just imagine the implications, if we consciously worked for clear, congruent communication with not just our dogs, but in all our communications.