Updated: Aug 27, 2020
A discussion that I regularly have with my students (new and old alike), is the value I place on verbal commands when training dogs...
Initially, I wrote < A discussion that I regularly have with my students (new and old alike), is the value I place on verbal commands when training dogs for Agility> but thought twice and deleted it, as I place value on verbal commands in every aspect of dog training.
For this particular blog post though, I will focus on the value of verbal commands specific to Agility training...
For years now (when I say years, I mean more than 10 and less than 20 and we will leave it at that) I have been criticized by other trainers/seminar presenters/competitors for using the sheer volume of verbal commands that I do while on course.
When I say sheer volume, I am referring to two different ways I implement verbal commands with my own dogs.
The first, is that I say a verbal command for EVERY SINGLE effort and/or obstacle on course, regardless of how "obvious" the path may be to my dog.
The second, is the number of different commands I have for certain obstacles. More specifically the verbal commands I have for each jumping effort, moving on the flat and for individual obstacle performances.
Now, to some that may seem overwhelming and I will be honest, IT CAN BE. Especially for handlers that largely omit verbals when running their dog. Although, I will be the first to point out that adding verbals into your day-to-day handling is not any more overwhelming than when you learned front, rear or blind crosses for that matter.
Just like with any other Agility skill, when you are starting to learn something and it is new, it is difficult as you have to put a great deal of mental and physical effort into getting it correct. As you diligently practice that skill and you become more and more proficient at it, over time it gets easier and easier.
Over the years, the most common rebuttals I have heard when chatting with others, when listening to my videos (the peanut gallery can be especially loud then) or even when discussing verbals with my students, is that they are too hard to get right, they distract the dog or probably the most common is "Well, my dog doesn't NEED to be told a verbal at every obstacle."
No, they probably don't.
That being said, I have spent years obsessively timing courses after courses and the dogs that have a strong understanding of verbal commands consistently beat the times of dogs who solely or almost exclusively rely on their handler's physical cues to get them through the course. The times don't lie.
Faster is faster.
Why is that you ask?
This is just my opinion, but I honestly believe that it is because the dog has an additional layer of information being given to them. I personally cannot outrun my dogs (my legs are not long enough for that) and in order for me to stay ahead of my dogs to run them proactively instead of reactively, I need them to have the ability to commit to equipment independently of my motion or physical cues. My verbal commands allow this to happen.
If you don't believe me, if you ever have the time to do so, sit down and find the Youtube channels of some of the top European Agility handlers (now, I realize that almost all of them can run like hell) but turn your volume on as loud as it can go and just listen. Over and over again, you will hear them using verbals to get their dogs around the course.
Because it works.
Again, faster is faster.
An example I like to use is, say you are driving a car and you are out on a highway for miles and miles without any traffic and your are speeding along and you have an idea of where the road goes, and you get lost in your own thoughts a bit. Without warning, the highway goes from two lane down to one because a car blew out a tire and couldn't make it to the shoulder. You have a couple hundred feet to swerve into the open lane. Scary right? Not so much, as no one crashed in this scenario but you DID have to refocus on the task at hand (driving) in a very short amount of time (you had to REACT).
Now, take that same scenario, but over the course of say a mile there are flashing traffic cones that force you to merge into the correct lane around the car with the blown tire. The traffic cones gave you a warning (or better yet, lets call it information) that allowed you to process what was going on and proactively deal with the situation instead of barely scraping out a reaction.
That is the best way I can describe the difference between running without/minimal verbals (Scenario 1) and running with verbals (Scenario 2). In Scenario 1, because the driver did not have any additional information until the last possible moment, they had to react and in a big way. While in Scenario 2, the driver had additional information so they could proactively make smaller adjustments to the situation.
To apply the above scenarios to Agility, and for discussions sake, take a look at the following sequence:
Lets start with Scenario 1 here, the handler releases their dog with "Ok!" then relies on their physical cues to move the dog from 1-5 and because tunnels are so fun, they give a "TUNNEL!" command, now, once the dog comes out of the tunnel the handler again goes quiet. From the moment the dog comes out of the tunnel, what do you think they are assuming?
That they need to take 6, 7, 8 and 9 or do you think they are forming the idea in their head they need to take 6, 7, 8 and then red? I am personally leaning towards the latter and while the dog has spent the past three obstacles thinking they have the right idea of where they are going, at #8 the handler commands "LEFT!", how responsive do you think the dog can be? Honestly?
Now, lets apply Scenario 2 to this particular course. The handler release the dog with "Ok! Go!" and promptly gives the dog the next command as they are at the take off point for each obstacle from 1-5. The dog commits to the tunnel and WHILE the dog is still inside, the handler gives them the next verbal command.
As the dog takes 6-8 they are staying focused on the handler's commands and once the dog is committed to taking #8, the handler promptly tell the dog their "Left!" command. Since the dog was already actively listening, the dog easily makes the turn and keeps moving through the course with just a minor adjustment to their stride.
Which do you think is a clearer scenario for the dog? I'm leaning towards Scenario 2.
Now, getting back to the "sheer volume" of verbals that my dogs understand. I've had more than a few people's jaw drop when I have shown them all the different verbals I use while on course.
To give you an idea, I have seven different commands just for different jumping efforts, I have five directional commands for when my dog is running on the flat and I have a command for each obstacle on course. So, I have roughly 20ish commands that I may use on any given course.
Again, that may seem overwhelming but I promise you it really isn't. As long as you take the time to really train the behavior and you are patient enough to teach your dog how to do them independently of your body motion, those verbals can be your greatest asset when running your dog on an Agility course.
I know for myself, that I am not a a particularly gifted athlete or runner. I am well aware, that I look like a drunken linebacker when I run my dogs. Which means, that a lot of the time my physical cues are not perfect, they may be a 100th of a second too late, or my footwork may be pointing to the wrong thing by 5 degrees or I'll be honest, Shine can (and will) flat out, outrun me.
Which she should.
For me, all that means is that I have to balance my physical imperfections with stronger verbals commands. Which is a trade off that tends to balance things out for both me and my students.
Another aspect of verbal commands that seems to surprise my students, is that verbal commands really are the key to unlocking distance skills. Back when I was running my mixed breed Toby in NADAC and we were doing loads and loads of distance, the reason we were successful at it, was because Toby thoroughly understood his verbal commands. Once he understood the verbal commands, it was simply a matter of stretching out the distance that I asked him to complete them.
As an Agility trainer and coach, I am thrilled when my students have enough confidence in me, that they dive into teaching their dog verbal commands and let me be a part of that process with them. At first I'll admit, it usually isn't very pretty, as there is a learning curve for both the handler and the dog, but when the pieces start to come together and those same verbal commands start to help propel them into becoming an even better team, I am always a beaming coach. :D
As I slowly see more and more competitors unlocking the power of verbal commands, I hope that it will help extinguish this long standing vendetta against verbals. I hope that the idea of implementing them on course isn't so taboo and that people will continue to embrace new ways of helping their dogs become an even better teammate while on the Agility course.
So, here is to extinguishing the long standing vendetta against verbals. - Kim