Dog Sense: Calm tone helps with ‘dog speak’

Cheri Spaulding and dog Geo

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”  – Inigo Montoya, “The Princess Bride” 

Our dogs often don’t understand the word either, especially when it’s strung together with other words spoken at a fast pace. I see this commonly when a frustrated client arrives with a dog who has unwanted behaviors. This is the very point of why they hired a trainer. When the dog displays the unwanted behavior, such as jumping, the owner will launch into a string of words directed at the dog. “Off, sit, down, leave it, sit, down.” The dog picks up on the nervous energy of their owner, has no clue what the cue is, and jumps more. I watch with empathy, having done the same in the past.  

We want to be good pet owners. We want others to see our dogs with the love we do. So when our dogs are doing the things dogs do naturally but what we find undesirable, we start chattering like the primates we are. We do the opposite of what the dog needs from us for effective communication.

When I’m teaching a dog a behavior such as four feet on the floor or going to their mat to stay, I stay very quiet. While they are learning a “quiet” behavior or any behavior, I want to be quiet myself, slow my movements and if I talk, I talk very low.  

Dogs pick up on tone of voice, body language and facial expression, the direction our bodies are facing, what we are looking at, and particularly, the speed with which we are moving our body parts. Dogs key into movement very well because they are predators, after all.

When I taught agility, I would have students run with their dogs through the maze of tunnels, jumps and obstacles silently. I allowed them to use only their bodies to indicate to the dog where to go and what obstacle to take. Even though the human part of the team felt uncomfortable not using their voices to scream their dog’s name over and over, the dogs loved the quiet. They could focus on the nuances of their partner’s physical signals.

Dogs learn verbal cues by repetition. To teach a young puppy “sit,” I start by quietly luring the puppy by raising my hand, palm up, over the pup’s head. Puppy will follow my hand, craning its neck and lowering its bottom on the ground into a sit. I will “mark” the moment the bottom touches down and quickly follow up with a reward. I will repeat this process a few times before I attach the verbal cue, “sit.” I will repeat a few more times, “sit,” raised hand, mark the bottom touch down, and reward. Then I will gradually stop using the hand raise if I’m choosing to use only the verbal cue “sit.” I have goofed around with my dogs, alternately using a verbal and a hand signal. I only play this game on behaviors my dog is fluent in.

A few years ago, I took a six-month intensive training class to sharpen my skills. The instructor gave us an assignment to prove that dogs are not attached to verbal cues. At the mid-morning break, I was assigned to teach my dog to sit when I gave her the verbal cue “iris.” This was a 7-year-old dog who had heard “sit” her whole life. I had 10 minutes to switch words successfully. I took her to a quiet location and said, “iris,” “sit.” Dottie sat. I marked her sit and gave her a reward. I repeated this a few times and then faded out including “sit.” When we were called in, Dottie successfully sat when I gave her the “iris” cue. Whew! 

Sometimes it’s hard to remember to communicate in a way that bridges the language gap with our dogs. It means speaking a non-primate language. We have to learn the language our dogs speak to train our dogs. 

Even after all these years, I am amazed and delighted when I see recognition in a dog’s face and they hurry to do the thing we have been working on. Today, I saw that look on a puppy’s face when I was teaching him to touch, to “target,” the palm of my hand. He knew what I wanted and was very excited to show me he could do it.

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