Jan 302014


Some dog trainers, particularly those with less or a more narrow range of experience, believe that issuing commands in a staccato, clear, authoritative voice is optimal. I am always a little amused when I am near these trainers and I myself can hardly avoid sitting when they demand it!  There certainly are times when clarity and authority are the most important criteria, but in many instances there are other options worth considering.

It is important to recognize that a dog becomes habituated to respond to a certain level of command intensity, and will often not respond to less intensity.  So if you normally give commands at a 70% volume and intensity level, your dog will likely learn to ignore commands given at a lower level.  There are several “drawbacks” to this:

  • If you need to increase your intensity for whatever reason, you will not have much room.  You are already near the maximum.
  • By giving commands at a loud volume, you eliminate the need for your dog to listen.  They do not particularly need to keep an eye or an ear on you because they know that you will make sure they hear you.  This put the onus on you, instead of on them.  Think of it like talking to another person—if you are quiet, they will generally lean forward and listen more intently.
  • Most of us want our dogs to become lighter—more responsive to less and less forcefulness.  But a dog will only become as light as your first command.  But you need to give them the opportunity to succeed at the lower volume and intensity or they will never learn it.
  • Variation is important—whatever tone you tend to use, if it has little variation, it becomes, well, monotonous, and therefore less effective.
  • Tone of voice has a cascading impact upon tone in general.  Personally, I like the tone created by giving primarily quiet and enthusiastic cues.  It becomes almost a game in which my dog learns to stay attuned to me at all times, even while playing or doing other things, because he is hoping I will make a subtle sound or movement that will invite him to play the great game. It becomes almost like mind-reading as he learns to watch and listen and see tiny predictive markers and almost always he beats me to the punch and is sitting in front of me offering some behavior before I have even finished formulating my intention.  That to me is far more wondrous than if I bellowed out a command like some Germanic drill sergeant.

In addition to volume and forcefulness, I would suggest people give a little thought to how they pronounce each word they commonly use to communicate with their dogs.  It is amazing how much information can be conveyed by a tiny lilt, by drawing a word out, by truncating a word.

Drawing out their name into the next command, so their name lingers and hangs in the air with them listening carefully for the word that is coming next: “Seeeeequuueeeelllllll…..sit.”

Saying “down” quickly, almost daring them to try to complete the task before I can get the word finished.

“Heel” with an upbeat sing-song quality that sets a mood and rhythm for the behavior.

“Ready” with an inviting tone.

One very useful technique is to videotape yourself training and playing with your dog, and then watch it and evaluate the tone your voice and body-language are setting… Does it sound, look, and feel inviting? How is the dog reacting to commands, not just in terms of performing them, but ears, eyes, tail, does each command make the dog more happy and attentive, or less? There is no single “right” tone, but observe yours and its effect, and make sure it is the best choice for your animals and your goals.

 January 30, 2014  Posted by at 11:11 pm

  3 Responses to “Tone of Voice”

  1. I think that this is a great blog for people who are training their dogs. We have had a dog, who is still very much a puppy, since last May. We have been trying to teach him commands and get him to bark less or stop barking when he gets in one of his moods. I didn’t know that talking to them like you are talking to another person was a technique that worked. I think it is a person’s natural instinct to yell at an animal when they aren’t listening. Our dog listens better when he is yelled at I think, but it would be interesting to see if quiet, normal talking would work. I also didn’t know that you should change your tone of voice. It is very surprising to me that they pick up on the one tone of voice that a person has when talking to them. I think I use many different tones of voice, but I guess that is something I could take note of too! I’m looking forward to paying attention to how I talk to my dog and what he responds to. I will also mention the ideas to my other family members so we can all follow the same kind of ques and they know the importance of the tone of your voice.

  2. Bravo! I train my dogs in a normal tone of voice, sometimes a whisper. It works better, they pay closer attention, and it really impresses friends and neighbors. My dogs are human remains detector dogs, giving them the cue to search in whisper is like lighting a firecracker with short fuse!

    We go to my sister’s house, and it’s chaos, my brother-in-law yelling at the dogs constantly – “GO LAY DOWN!!!” at the top of his voice, and the dogs try to figure out something to shut him up. I feel very sorry for the dogs.

  3. Also, it can be a problem when you have only adopted and trained a dog later in his life. This may be hard if the dog had an owner who talked at a louder voice preventing him from responding to your commands.

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