The voice is one of the most powerful tools we have when training our dogs and yet it’s one of the most misused and wasted. Because, unlike with hand signals, your dog doesn’t have to see you to know you’re giving it a command, means you can give your dog instructions when you’re out of sight…
When we talk to our dogs, whether that’s around the home or on the training field, it really important that we use it appropriately. Not just at the appropriate time but at the right speed and pitch also.
If we wander around the house chatting away to our dogs we very quickly turn into ‘white noise’ there to be ignored. An easy way to remember to bite your tongue is to think of all the times you’ve thought out loud and have people ask you to repeat what you’re saying – it doesn’t take very long for them to completely ignore your ramblings knowing that you’re not talking to them. When you do talk to them they will ignore you as they think you are talking to yourself.
Your dog is no different. Initially he will hang on your every word but it won’t take long for him to disregard your voice, and, if you tag his name on to your ramblings you are actively conditioning him to ignore anything you say him. Not great foundations for a relationship, working or otherwise.
Have you ever heard an elephant squeak and or a mouse roar? No, me neither and we never will, unless the scientists genetically engineer it to be so. Physics dictates that the smaller the animal (or item) the smaller and higher pitched noise it makes whereas the bigger the animal the bigger and deeper noise it makes; think of the noise a small drum makes when hit compared to a big one!
In the dog world that generally equates to the bigger the dog the deeper the bark the more menacing the growl. Your dog’s bark will be deeper when he’s angry as he will have made himself physically that much bigger and expanded his rib cage, whereas his ‘happy’ bark will sound quite high pitched in comparison.
While we’re talking about barking, think about the speed of the bark as well. A happy or excitable bark will be fast with the barks coming in rapid succession whereas a menacing growl is normally a slow drawn out affair.
When we communicate with our dogs in a fast, rapid fire manner, this can really excite the dog, winding up an already fizzy dog or firing up a less than enthusiastic one; alternatively by talking to our dogs in a slow, quiet voice, we are calming things down. Taking on a ‘matronly’ no nonsense kind of voice is great for simply getting things done!
Another way that we can use the voice is for marking our dog’s behaviour; both positively and negatively.
I tend to condition dogs that I work with to the word ‘yes’ by hand feeding them their dinner and saying ‘yes’ with each piece of food in exactly the same way that a clicker trainer would in preparation for clicker training. This act, known as charging (charging the word or charging the clicker) is especially good for the dogs that are less than confident working away from you or when you first start sending your dog out of sight. By simply saying the charged word ‘yes’ when your dog is getting it right will mark the behaviour positively with a warm and fuzzy moment and will fill him with confidence as he knows he’s getting it right.
Marking unwanted behaviour is just as important, as in the animal kingdom anything that is ignored is acceptable, or rather, when a behaviour is ignored it is being left up to the dog to decide if that behaviour is worth repeating or not. The best thing that we can do with our dogs is to make all communication as clear as possible.
So, a quietly positive upbeat ‘yes’ when they’re getting right, or good boy/good girl, however, when working or at distance I find the single ‘yes’ works very well. A clipped deep toned ‘no’ when marking unwanted behaviour, or, if ‘correcting’, a deeper growlier ‘no’ or ‘ahhhh’ are the order of the day.
The reason that these are so effective are because they are mimicking the pitch that other dogs would use, at the time that they would use them.
The pitch and tone of commands and corrections are one of the many reasons why ladies are generally very good at training younger dogs, whereas men tend to excel at training wayward teenagers as they can naturally get the guttural growly tones. However, it is the sign of an excellent trainer when balance is achieved and men can do the high pitched excited voice and women trainers can do the deeper admonishing tones.
The one time though, when it is can be inappropriate to use our voices, is when our dogs are displaying fear; depending upon the situation a soothing reassurance from us can be interpreted by our dogs as praise, thereby praising the fear and making it worse…
Lez Graham MA, FCFBA, MGoDT (MT), KCAI (WGA)
Trained for Life