We rarely think about the sound of our own voice and many of us are unpleasantly surprised the first time we hear it. But, given how important verbal communication is for our species, it pays to understand how we use our voice and how it is received by others. Our dogs are often at the receiving end of our verbal outpour, but how do you evaluate the effect it has on your dog? Not only can a dog not talk back, they also process the information quite differently to humans.
Common problems when talking to your dog are related to using cues that your dog hasn’t learned yet, repeating cues too many times, getting the timing wrong, giving the wrong or no feedback or generally talking too much. But apart from missing valuable information or becoming “white noise” for your dog, your voice can become an even more serious problem when it inadvertently slips into a “commanding” or even angry voice. If you want your dog to truly listen to you, it is worthwhile to pay attention not just to what you say and when, but also how you say it.
Aggressive voices create negative emotions
It is remarkably easy to raise one’s voice or change one’s tone without planning it and without calculating the effect it may have on others. It happens when our brain spontaneously responds to emotions such as anger or fear. Before we get the chance to consciously think about an appropriate response, the words have already been uttered. While the words themselves may not mean much to a dog, the tone can trigger a flood of negative emotions. It has been shown that verbal aggression by parents can have similar detrimental effects on children as physical abuse1, and this even when the parents are otherwise loving and supportive. Although the loudness and aggressive tone may only be partially relevant in human-human communication (next to the actual content), it is nevertheless a potential source of distress for the recipient as well as anyone listening. Of course an occasional incident of parents losing their cool is not automatically damaging to a child’s emotional health. At least with older kids, it is generally possible to have a talk about it afterwards and explain why you lost the plot.
But how confusing and potentially frightening must it be for a dog, an animal who is not capable of explaining human behaviour, if the person they are attached to (you) becomes aggressive, verbally or otherwise? Even if they do link your aggression to their own behaviour and subsequently avoid that behaviour in future – at least in front of you! – , the potential emotional fallout cannot be ignored. The realisation that “yelling – like spanking – does not teach the child anything about how to behave appropriately”1, applies just as much to dogs. A raised voice does not teach your dog what you want them to do. It simply leaves your dog with a negative emotional memory. Especially if raising your voice is a frequent occurrence, those memories will most likely affect your dog’s emotional well-being, their future behaviour and the relationship they have with you. And not for the better.
Take control of your voice
Using your voice carefully when talking to your dog is about self-awareness and self-discipline. This will be easier if you have a clear goal of how you want your dog to behave, what it takes to teach the behaviour and an understanding of exactly what your dog has learned so far. If your dog engages in an unwanted behaviour or doesn’t listen to you, making anthropomorphic assumptions about your dog’s motivation is not helpful. For example, if you believe your dog is recalcitrant, disobedient or dominant, you are likely to experience negative emotions and therefore more likely to respond in an emotional manner such as using a raised or harsh tone of voice. Instead, think in simple terms about your dog’s skill level (i.e. their level of training) and their most likely motivation such as wanting access to food, toys or play or wanting to avoid an unpleasant situation. Then go back to school with your dog2, repeat the exercises, practise under distractions and provide outstanding motivation in form of tasty food or other high value rewards. Raising your voice or using a more “serious” tone cannot replace training. It only risks that your voice tips over from being a communication tool to becoming a punisher.
A good training exercise for testing or practising how much control you have over your own voice is “leave it”. Ideally you start this exercise with food in your hand rather than on the floor but let’s just skip ahead to the part where you are likely to be more challenged. When you place food on the floor, you have to be ready to quickly cover it or snatch it away if the dog dives for it. If the dog is faster than you and “wins” (gets to the food before you have given the OK), your training will suffer a serious setback. Your dog will learn that she can beat you at this game.
Here is the scenario:
- You place the food on the floor between you and your dog and give the “leave it” cue.
- You are in a state of alert because you need to move quickly if your dog flinches.
- Your dog flinches.
- “LEAVE IT!!”
Oops. Your verbal outburst has most likely stopped your dog dead in her tracks. But it wasn’t the cue (“leave it”) that stopped her. It was your tone. You could have yelled anything and she would have stopped all the same. The plan was to quickly cover the food with your hand if your dog moved but your voice was faster. Your emotional response has ruined your training plan2.
While this is not necessarily a traumatic event for your dog or a roadblock to your training success (although it can be), it shows how easily we can trip up. Trying to control your dog with verbal or physical force – no matter how subtle that may be – is an emotional response, either driven by the current context or by the relationship you have with your dog. Teaching your dog skills with knowledge, patience and practise on the other hand is a strategy based on rational decisions. One that will pay off and give you the control you want without causing distress for you or your dog.
1 Yelling Doesn’t Help, May Harm Adolescents, Pitt-Led Study Finds, University of Pittsburgh
2 To teach your dog reliable skills, get yourself a good book, join a good dog training school or hire a qualified professional. If you train your dog with a plan, your chances of success are greatly increased.
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