How to Talk to Your Dog
THE CORRECT USE OF VOICE COMMANDS FOR TRAINING YOUR DOG
Use Consistent Dog Commands. Once your dog has learned a command, do not vary it. Use it the same way—same tone of voice, same phrase—every time you give the command. Don’t confuse the dog by saying “Come,” “Come over here,” “Come on boy,” “Come on, Come on,” etc. Pay attention to what you’re saying and discipline yourself to use the same phrase every time—and only one at a time. For example, “Come on... sit down... stay... okay?” has four requests in it, but not one command a dog can understand clearly and follow.
Develop a personal dog training vocabulary. Make a dog vocabulary that works for you, one you use consistently to express exactly what you need or mean to say. “Oops” is a wonderful dog training word because it expresses a gentle reprimand. By its very nature “oops” can’t sound angry—it implies “Nope, try again,” rather than the less forgiving “NO!” You can say “oops” when your dog executed the wrong command (like lying down instead of sitting) or ignored you. “Oops” sounds cautionary but forgiving, especially because when you say it you are probably going to give the dog another chance to do your bidding. “Oops” makes you a more forgiving “boss,” which creates a better learning environment for your dog.
Be aware of how you use a word, especially the word “down.” If “down” means “lie down,” then don’t use it interchangeably to tell a dog not to jump up on people. (“Off” might work, but only if you don’t use it to signal a dog to get off a piece of furniture or get out of a car, which is different.)
Give your dog a command using a consistent tone of voice. How you say a word—the tone, the inflection at the end of the word—must be the same each time for your dog to respond reliably. Change your tone and you alter the meaning of the command. You’ll gain control of your voice simply by focusing on it.
QUICK VOICE TIPS FOR TRAINING YOUR DOG
Use a sound or word in a way that helps get the point across:
THE PITCH OF YOUR VOICE MATTERS IN DOG TRAINING
Use a low-pitched voice to convey authority. When you command your dog using a low voice, he’ll respond better. Using a low register tells him you are confident and serious; this is partly because a mother dog growls low and slow to control her pups. But lower does not mean louder—just drop your voice a decibel or two.
A voice teacher would say the sound needs to come from your chest, not your throat (which has a piercing, higher pitch). Women with high-pitched voices can practice sending the voice up from the chest instead of speaking from the upper-throat or nasal area. It may sound affected to you at first, but try it at home and get comfortable with a softer pitch. Your voice will sound more pleasant.
If the dog ignores your command to come, remain unemotional about it and say “Noooo” in a low, growly voice. Then say “Come” again in a nice, cheery tone. See what difference the pitch of your voice can make to the dog—and remember this for everyday practice.
Use a higher pitch voice for praise. Men (or women with deep voices) should practice using a higher voice to encourage their dog, even if they feel silly. When you want to encourage your dog to continue what he is doing, you have to think like a cheerleader: use a high-pitched “Come on! That’s a good boy! You can do it!” The most effective trainers make their dogs enthusiastic by using a happy, energetic voice and speaking the dog’s name with high-pitched enthusiasm.
HOW TO AVOID COMMON PROBLEMS WHEN YOU TALK TO YOUR DOG
Dogs don’t speak English, but they possess a large cognitive vocabulary if we take the time to talk to them. It’s true: some dogs really can pick up the sense of what we mean a lot of the time. But don’t confuse this with understanding language the way humans do.
Some people chat a lot to their dogs and get the impression they’re being understood. They assume when it’s something important they’re trying to get across, their dog should know what they mean. In fact, the dog may not respond to what you’re asking for because he is confused about what you want. Dogs can get the gist of things we do with them routinely and from the sound of our words and the inflection in our voices, but that does not mean they actually understand our language, especially in unfamiliar situations.
Your dog’s name is not a command. Remember the phrase, “That’s my name, don’t wear it out!”—the one kids in grade school used when someone called their name? Every time you find yourself trying to communicate with your dog by saying nothing more than his name in a variety of inflections (“Oscar?” “Oscar!”), just remember the annoying kid at recess.
Our dogs can tune us out if we say their names many times a day in a wide variety of tones of voice. We’re all guilty of this at times, but we’re wasting our breath because a dog can’t read our minds (even though there are times when it seems he can). When all you say is the dog’s name and you’re convinced he still knows exactly what you mean, it’s probably because he’s picking up and responding to visual clues that you don’t even realize you are sending out. Pay attention to your habits and you’ll probably notice that you often just call out the dog’s name with an up-inflection, an annoyed tone, a sharp voice, etc., without a command like “come” or “wait” after it.
This lack of clarity can increase a nervous or high-strung dog’s natural anxiety. Another downside to a dog’s hearing his name over and over for no apparent reason is desensitizing him to his own name. After a while, he may not even react when he hears it. If you persist saying his name without any meaningful command attached, you are “using up” your dog’s attentiveness. The dog will assume you don’t know what you want and will ignore you.
“No” is not a dog command. “No” doesn’t mean anything—yet we growl and scream it at our dogs. Do you say “No!” over and over, constantly nagging, getting on the dog’s case? Is he doing something wrong? He’ll feel like he’s doing everything wrong, as would you if somebody relentlessly told you “No!”
Remember to praise the good—praise your dog when he stops a misbehavior. Think of the saying about catching more flies with honey: dogs have feelings of self-worth or confidence that can be enhanced or diminished by how you communicate with them; it’s in your hands.
Avoid illogical negative dog commands.“No bark!” or “No pull!” are ludicrous things to say to a dog. First, dogs don’t speak English—much less understand the concept of “not” doing something—especially when that something is a word they haven’t been taught to respond to in the first place.
“Good sit,” said after a dog sits also means nothing. If “sit” means “sit down,” then repeating the word “sit” with a meaningless noise before it (“good”) would be confusing at best; the dog already is sitting. That is what’s good. Any further comment with the word sit is a pointless repetition, even in a nice tone of voice.
Avoid repeating dog commands. Every dog training manual says not to repeat a command over and over, because you’ll numb the dog to the word(s). We repeat ourselves because we don’t have the count-to-three patience to wait for the dog to respond to what we’ve asked for. It’s like clicking the mouse multiple times (and freezing up the computer) because you just can’t wait for the icon to open up.
The concept of patience is a good one to keep in mind not only around dogs, but also children, coworkers, and people in the outside world in general. Repeating yourself is a habit you can break by slowing yourself down mentally—your dog will benefit as much from this as you will. With a dog who already has training but is accustomed to your repeated commands, try the following exercise to retrain yourself to say things only once:
Don’t raise your voice to your dog. If he isn’t responding, don’t get frustrated. Raising your voice to get a reaction does nothing—except raise your own frustration level while rattling the dog.
UNDERSTANDING HOW DOGS COMMUNICATE DOMINANCE
“Getting dominance over your dog” is a dangerously misunderstood concept. Establishing yourself as pack leader must be undertaken in terms a dog understands. You want the right dominance and submission relationship to exist between you and your dog so he will accept your training requests and social expectations. The points below illustrate dominance problems that can occur between people and dogs. It’s best to start training your dog only after you’ve spent some time researching these behaviors and thoroughly understand them.
SIGNS OF DOG DOMINANCE
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