Journal Scan: Speak! Or should you? What do your canine veterinary patients prefer?


Journal Scan: Speak! Or should you? What do your canine veterinary patients prefer?

A new study shows that dogs better attend to gestural commands than verbal ones, but for the best result, try combining word and deed.
Feb 14, 2018

Dogs are often characterized as “man’s best friend” and have been our constant companions for thousands of years. As a species, people are primarily verbal communicators, while dogs primarily communicate with body language or gestures. When communicating with dogs, we know that if we use both verbal communication and gestures together, we are often more successful. However, it was not known which cues dogs prioritize when communicating with us—verbal or gestural communications. A recent study1 investigated which method dogs prefer.

What they did

Six male and seven female dogs that had no previous training were recruited from a dog training center in Italy to participate in the study. The dogs were trained to fetch three different items by both a verbal command as well as pointing. To be admitted to the testing phase of the study, the dogs were required to be able to fetch the objects reliably after training. Four males and five females were able to proceed. The dogs were then tested by being given a command verbally asking for one object while the tester pointed to a different object. Each dog was tested eight times.

What they found

Seven out of nine dogs showed a significant preference for the pointing command, while the other two responded in a manner consistent with random chance. None of the dogs showed a preference for the verbal command.

Take-home points

Based on the findings of this study, dogs prioritize gestural commands significantly over verbal commands. However, the use of both verbal and gestural commands together was significantly more reliable than using either independently. This information reinforces the value of using and giving clear gestural commands such as pointing when training dogs.

Link to abstract:


1. Scandurra A, Alterisio A, Aria M, et al. Should I fetch one or the other? A study on dogs on the object choice in the bimodal contrasting paradigm. Anim Cogn 2018;21(1):119-126.

Michael Nappier, DVM, DABVP, is assistant professor of community practice in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine in Blacksburg, Virginia.