Eye See, Eye Learn - The Importance of Visual Signals for Training Your Dog
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Eye See, Eye Learn - The Importance of Visual Signals for Training Your Dog

In the blink of an eye, your dog lights out across the open lawn, but before you can react, it disappears into a far-off stand of trees bordering the park. Calling for your dog, you race to the spot where you last saw it while your mind races even faster to figure out what caused your dog to suddenly bolt from your side and run off without even a backward glance in your direction! Rushing headlong into the forest, you are temporarily relieved to hear your dog’s frantic barking over the high pitched wheezing escaping from your lungs until you discover it’s coming from behind an impenetrable curtain of briars and brushwood. Grimacing in pain and frustration, you charge through hundreds of tiny daggers tearing at your flesh in the hope of getting your hands on the dog that, up until a few minutes ago, you loved dearly. After two pints of blood loss and the total demise of your favorite jeans, you finally break through the last strands of thorns and catch a glimpse of your dog doing its best to run up the side of a large oak tree. Over and over, it leaps and claws its way upward to about seven feet before gravity and the anti-climbing governor installed by nature to keep dogs out of trees, takes over, and your dog plummets back to earth. As you stand there, not the least bit amused, your eyes instinctively follow your dog’s trajectory and lo and behold, perched on the lowest limb is the reason for your dog’s spontaneous desertion and your subsequent torture. It’s a squirrel…of course.

When a behavior occurs in our dogs, especially one that catches us off guard like bolting for a squirrel, we immediately seek an explanation as to what triggered it. Contrary to what most people believe, it’s what the dog sees that most often produces the behavior, not what it smelled, heard, or touched. Granted, dogs do have a keen sense of smell, between 220 million and 2 billion olfactory neurons compared to humans that have only 5 million, and well developed hearing capable of detecting sounds up to 40,000 cycles per second (cps) compared to humans who can hear up to 20,000 cps, but it’s their dependency on their sense of sight that facilitates the greater part of their learning of the various stimuli in their environment and how to respond to them. Therefore, we would do better to consider what our dogs might have seen in the seconds leading up to their behavior, rather than what they may have heard or smelled when seeking answers for its provocation. 

The reason for our dog’s dependency on their sense of sight lies with their biological and behavioral connection to wolves who have proven to be hugely successful predators in a virtually silent world. Animals hunted by wolves and other predators tend to not announce their presence by creating unnecessary noise, thus increasing their chance of survival by making their detection only possible by either visual sighting or by scenting. Likewise, wolves don’t announce their presence to the animals they hunt. When trying to maintain the delicate balance of energy expenditure versus energy acquisition, every calorie counts and wolves quickly learned that being noisy upset the balance by causing them to burn more calories than they took in hunting animals that had recently vacated the area because they had detected wolves nearby. Consequently, having to remain quiet for the sake of not starving to death not only created the need to develop stealthy hunting tactics, but it also forced wolves to improve their ability to communicate with other pack members soundlessly. From this additional need, an elaborate array of body English, designed for inaudibly controlling the behavior of pack and non-pack members was born, and it contributed to their success as a species by complimenting their need to remain undetected by their prey.

The dynamic stressors of hunting silent prey and soundlessly communicating to pack members required nature to provide wolves with visual acuity adapted for both purposes. In doing so, she outfitted them with the ability to see each other and their prey in low light (three times lower than humans), a wide field of vision for detecting movement and shape at great distances, and dichromatic sensitivity to the colors blue (sky) and green (forest) and the combinations of both. These abilities, except for a slight degradation in the field of vision found in brachycephalic breeds (broad head with eyes placed forward), were passed to dogs. As a result, today’s dog, with just its eyes, can detect its food bowl resting on the floor of a dark kitchen at a great distance and communicate to you that it’s empty. It’s also why your dog can maintain its position next to you while walking without ever looking in your direction. However, it’s also how they can detect a terribly small squirrel at an impossible distance and then, after bolting from your side, track its every movement through thick briars and up a tree while running full speed! Mother Nature did indeed bless dogs with a fine set of eyes, and unless you take advantage of that fact and lean more heavily on a training regimen that includes more visual than auditory cues, you’ll end up yelling for your dog every time it takes off after a bushy-tail rodent that your poor vision failed to detect in enough time to stop your dog from bolting. And, to make matters worse, you’ll continue to yell with no effect because dogs learn and respond to visual signals long before the ones they hear. Therefore, when setting out to train your deliberately deaf, squirrel chasing dog, to not leave your side when walking or to do anything else for that matter, I suggest you do the following:

Trim any excess fur from around your dog’s eyes.  Like us, dogs will frequently use their vision to either learn more about what they heard, felt, or smelled, or to affirm it. However, this is extremely difficult to do if you have hair hanging in your eyes. As a rule, hard to see = hard to learn and interpret and the more significant problem with that, besides your dog’s training taking forever to accomplish, is the fact that dogs tend to avoid or fear signals they can’t interpret.

As a consequence, your dog may become fearful or aggressive with unfamiliar dogs and people because of its inability to make out the visual signals being transmitted by them. The same goes for unfamiliar dogs and people. If they can’t see your dog’s eyes, they may be uncertain about your dog’s receptiveness and become fearful as well. If your dog somehow detects their fear, it may become even more fearful or take advantage of situation and attack. On account of this, if you own a dog with excess fur hanging over its eyes, you will eventually have to decide if you want a pretty dog with stylish bangs or one that is confident and learns quickly.

Show what you say.  Dog’s don’t possess language like us. When teaching your dog a new behavior, your spoken words minus any accompanying visual signals from you have no meaning to them. On the contrary, consistent visual signals transmitted by you to your dog without any spoken words on your part will elicit a consistent response from your dog over time. Therefore, if your training goal is ultimately to have your dog respond only to spoken commands, you will need to form a “compound” signal by attaching stereotyped visual signals to each command in the beginning. The advantage of using compound signals for training your dog is the fact that they, by nature, eventually become “either/or” elicitors of behavior which will allow you to utilize either a visual or an auditory signal to evoke the same response from your dog. For example, if you raise your right arm each time you give the command “come,” your dog will soon interpret raising your right arm as “come.” Once this occurs, you will be able to choose between a visual signal (raising your right arm) or saying “come” to compel your dog to return to you. This is a good thing because when your dog takes off after a squirrel, raising your right arm will have zero effect in getting your dog to break off its pursuit and return to you because its eyes will be focused on something running from it and not on what it’s running from.

Show what you say, but don’t make the show out to be a big deal. I once owned a dog that would always run to the front door whenever I would think about leaving my home. That’s right, whenever I “thought” about going. My dog could read my mind; at least, that’s what I thought. In reality, it was me subconsciously touching my back pocket to see if I had possession of my wallet before I left, that alerted the dog of my imminent departure and subsequently, his race to the door in an attempt to persuade me to let him tag along.

Visual signals don’t have to be over the top, dramatic spectacles of waving arms, gyrating torsos, or odd facial contortions for dogs to associate what they see with what happens next. In fact, the initial interpretation of overzealous human movements and gestures by most dogs is that of a possible threat. This interpretation is due in part to the fact that most, non-aggressive, social-visual-signals given by wolves to other pack members are extremely subtle to the point of being nearly indiscernible to the untrained eye. However, a second or two before an attack occurs, the signals given by the aggressor are anything but that! Flesh on the muzzle pulls back to expose large, yellow fangs. Hackles along the spine suddenly stand erect. The head turns slightly as the eyes shift to the side to compensate for the blind spot caused by a lack of bifocal vision, thus forming a white crescent moon in the corner of the eyes that gives warning of the impending attack. The body and tail raise to their full height and the chest swells from a sudden intake of air. Then faster than you can blink an eye, the attack occurs.

When attempting to train your dog, minimize the visual cues and signals you use. Not only for the sake of not having your movements become interpreted by your dog as hostile, but also because subtle signs are natural and they require more focus and attention from your dog to not be missed. If you start your dog’s training with visual signals that are hard to miss, such as colossal arm swings, 90 degrees torso bends, exaggerated strides, and so on, not only will your dog become dependent upon them to interpret and perform each command in the future, but you’ll also be inviting inattentiveness, disinterest, and distracted to participate in your dog’s training. For instance, it takes far more attentiveness from your dog to catch a single finger pointing to the ground indicating that it is supposed to lie down, than a torso bending 90 plus degrees. As a result, if your dog wishes to avoid a correction for not obeying the command indicated by the single finger pointing to the ground, it had better keep a closer eye on you than it does the pesky squirrels that provide fierce competition for your attention, hence, why less is best when training with visual signals. Lesser movement on your part creates not only more receptiveness from your dog, but it also creates more attentiveness, which is a critical factor in all learning.

Not long ago, we humans use to love to chat with other humans. Nowadays, with emailing and texting available, I’m not so confident we still do. However, I am sure that dog owners still love to chat with their dogs. So much so, that our chatting has become a stumbling block for many dogs doing their best to learn what we are trying to teach them. Not realizing that it’s what we show our dogs that is more easily understood than what we say to them, we embark upon training with words galore and then expect our dogs to interpret what we said and respond accordingly. Other times, we expect them to pluck the word they’re supposed to obey out of an entire sentence! For instance, “Sally, can you SIT?” “Max, do you want to show Mr. Bryan how well you can DOWN?” “Benny, come back over here and HEEL next to me like a good boy!” Poor Sally, Max, and Benny. I am sure if they could chat with their owners, they would say one word, “BYE!”

When training your dog, it is essential that you keep in mind that visual signals are learned much faster and reliable than auditory cues. Therefore, chat less and show more, but be sure only to show enough to evoke the desired behavior. Lastly, always remember, I hear, I forget, but when I see, I learn. By the way, the same goes for your dog.





 

  


 

Posted by Bryan Bailey at 6:31 PM

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