Let's Talk About Vocals!
Updated: Sep 11, 2018
Do I talk to my dogs? Yes, of course I do. It’s a great way to have a conversation without being judged or given unsolicited advice - if a little one-sided. The question isn’t, do you talk to your dog; rather, do you communicate with your dog?
Non-judgmental conversations are great for a little downtime discourse, but they muddy the water when it comes to training. “Now, sit down Fido, there’s a good boy, no; don’t do that, no; sit down! Fido, where are you going? Fido, come here! Fido! Fido! Fido!”. Now, I don’t know about you, but even as a human I found that exchange pointless, irritating and exhausting. Yet how many times do you hear dog owners doing this with their beloved furry family members? And is the dog listening? Of course it isn’t. It’s tuned out all the meaningless background noise and it’s staring down that squirrel right there. Yep, that’s the one. The one it’s about to chase, and pull its distracted, chit-chatting owner off their feet. You want your dog to come to you, and then sit? Then that’s what you tell your dog (shocker, eh?)!
Dogs use their body language and their energy, not their voices, as their primary method of communication. If you want to communicate effectively with your dog, you need to learn to “speak Dog”. So; aside from learning what your dog is telling you, how to respond accordingly, and how to communicate using your body language, how can you learn to use your voice better? Sometimes, it’s by not using it at all. Silence is a powerful tool, if you know how and when to use it.
If you’ve ever tried to shout down a barking dog to make it stop, you’ll know that it rarely works. The dog just goes, “Oh; you’re barking too? Awesome! We’ll all bark together!” – and it then barks more. Dogs don’t understand words in the same way that we do. Yes – they can learn words and what those words are associated with. But the key is not the word itself; it’s the intent behind the word, and the vocal, or “tone”, used.
There is no need to “bark” commands at your dog (pun intended). There is no need to repeat the command in a louder, sharper voice if it’s not complied with immediately. Give the dog time to respond to what you want. You can sharpen up response times when you have proofed the command after several hundred cycles of it. Repeating commands merely opens up a dialogue with the dog, so you may get the Sit on the first or the eighth repetition. Who knows? Either way, why do you want to repeat a command seven or eight times in any case? Be clear and concise about what you want, and practise constantly.
Don’t request behaviours. Commands are called commands for a reason. If your “Sit” or “Stay” is hesitant, the dog will be hesitant. Why should they obey the command if your voice betrays the very fact that you don’t trust them to follow it in the first place? The “Stay” command is a great example of this. I hear owners telling their dogs, “Stay… stay… stay,” in the most hesitant of voices as they move away from the dog. It’s more a case of luck than learning if the dog actually stays in position. Give a nice, firm, “Stay!”, in a deep, neutral tone. Move away from the dog. It doesn’t matter if the dog breaks the command. Take the end of the leash, and move the dog back into position. Give the command again. Same voice, same action. Say it once, mean it, and move away from the dog.
“No!” is one of the hardest vocals for dog owners to master. Because we’re saying “no” to mark an undesirable behaviour, we often say it in the same tone as we would use for a naughty child, with the same frustration inherent in it. As a consequence, the dog responds to this energy and will often escalate their behaviour. Dogs do not learn or understand in the same manner as a human child, so anger or disappointment in a vocal does not translate to them as it would to your own offspring. The, “No!” we use should sound firm, calm and methodical. It should be a statement, with a slight undertone of threat. This, “No!” is not to be trifled with. If a punishment or correction has, at any point, followed the “No,” the dog will form the association and in future will stop the behaviour upon hearing “No!”, rather than after receiving a correction.
Neutrality is key – both for commands and corrections except for the recall command. Make your recall as enthusiastic as possible. You’ve seen how happily your dog greets you even when you’ve only been gone for 10 minutes. You need to reflect that level of joy in your voice when recalling your dog. High-pitched vocals and baby talk excite dogs, which is why we discourage them most of the time. Recalls are one of the only times that I, as a trainer, will actively encourage these kinds of vocals. But remember: as soon as your dog has recalled to you, bring your energy level and vocals back down as you give the praise.
Whispering can also be used to great effect. Try whispering commands to your dog. Their hearing is much more acute than you might think. Whispering makes the dog have to work just that little bit harder to hear you and figure out what you want from it. Because giving you what you want means that good things happen for the dog. And when good things happen, the association forms, and behaviours are learned and repeated!