The Human Part of Body Language
Because visual cues are more salient to dogs they learn body language and other visual cues easier than verbal cues.
The fact is that dogs learn body language faster than verbal cues. We are a verbal species but dogs are a visual species. They must learn the body language of other dogs and those around them in order to successfully maneuver their way through life. It’s a survival skill, plain & simple.
Often, we think our dog knows a verbal cue when we are actually giving the tiniest visual cue as well. If you aren’t sure what your dog is picking up on then videotape yourself and see what your dog is seeing. When we work with our dogs it is important that we are aware of what our body is saying to the dog as well as the verbal cues we give. For example: if our mouth says “stay” but our body language says “come”, our dog will come to us. This is one great reason to practice moving around when teaching stay, instead of doing the all too common “stand frozen in front of your dog” routine. The entire reason we teach stay is so they won’t move while we are doing something else.
In addition, when teaching cues, if we talk and move at the same time, the dog will learn the visual cue, not the verbal cue. This is a concept called “overshadowing”, which is well-described in this article.
Distance and position matter as well. If a dog learns to do something while standing directly in front of us he may not do it when we are across the room. Likewise, if we have our backs turned, are standing to the side of the dog, or even sitting down our dog may not respond because while we think our dog learned a hand cue or verbal cue, he is really looking at the whole picture. If that whole picture doesn’t look familiar then he has no idea what you are saying to him.
When your dog is normally reliable with a behavior and then one day doesn’t do what you ask, look at your body language and notice if it is different than usual. Quite often it’s not your dog’s fault, he just isn’t understanding what you are saying to him.