Can you hear me now?

What You’re Really Saying to Your Dog

We know a dog’s hearing is much better than ours, but are they really hearing what we think they are? Many dog owners — and trainers, for that matter — think that using soft, soothing tones will help a dog better understand us.

Actually, it doesn’t. Dogs understand words. Basic commands like sit, down, stay, etc. all have meaning if the dog has been conditioned to understand what behavior is expected when they hear them. More than likely, however, the dog was never taught that the words “it’s ok” have a specific behavior attached to them. When we say those words to our dogs, we want them to understand that they should be calm and unstressed. To do this, we must be an authority figure to our dogs, so they trust us when we tell them that a situation is not worthy of fear or stress.

When a dog is overly stressed, or in a highly agitated state, people often try to soothe them using human psychology. If a young child falls and scrapes their knee, a parent’s immediate instinct is to pick them up, rock them, and calmly express to them that everything will be alright. This works because the child is wired to understand that when mom or dad are present and comforting them, everything is in fact going to be ok. They understand what the words mean, and know that they’re no longer in danger, but dogs don’t have that same level of comprehension. For example, an insecure dog that is scared of strangers will cower behind you when someone unfamiliar approaches. If you respond by using your high-pitched happy voice in an attempt to reassure your dog that “he is a nice guy,” or “it’s ok,” what is your tone really communicating? It’s telling them that the way they are feeling and behaving in that moment is acceptable, because it’s the same voice and tone we use when rewarding our dogs. They don’t understand your words, but they interpret your tone. If we use the same style of communication when trying to stop behaviors that we do to reinforce them, we inadvertently reinforce negative behaviors or validate their feelings of fear or stress.

You can be the calming voice to your dog by keeping your tone even, and not overreacting when your dog is overly stressed or attempting to aggress towards a stimulus. There is a reason that the clicker is a very effective training tool, that’s because the click always sounds the same. Through repetition that sound will come to mean something. Your voice and tone should be used in the same manner.  Keep the words you use, and the manner in which you say them as consistent as possible.

Relationship and Respect

In order to control a potentially volatile situation when your dog is in a stressed state, and have him listen and trust your calming words and tone, you first need to have his respect above all else. If your dog views you as a roommate, and not an authority figure, then it may not matter what you say or how you say it. Dogs want, and need, clarity about rules, structure, and knowing where they stand within the family. If they have an inflated sense of their status, they will not listen as well. The dog is still part of the family, and we love them, but their place is at the bottom of the family hierarchy.

Here are a few tell tale signs that your dog has a false sense of status.

  • They claim space: for instance, they get on furniture and resist when told to get off it.
  • They try to control walks and pull you where they want to go.
  • They are possessive of food/toys/beds.
  • They are possessive of people. (It may seem like they just really like the person and want to be around them, but being possessive is something different).
  • They try to control situations or people by barking, growling, or nipping.
  • They are insistent when they want attention and petting.

If you see any of these traits in your dog, it’s time for a plan to train them and instill new behaviors. Such a plan requires implementing new rules for everything from how feedings are done to how we prepare to go for a walk. You will get some push back from your dog when you start your new regimen, but this clarity about what you expect will actually reduce your dog’s anxiety in the long run. It’s not one big thing that makes the difference, it’s the 10 little things we change that paint a clear picture of how the relationship is supposed to be. Start with adopting a ‘nothing in life is free’ policy by making your dog work for every reward. “Work” can be a sit, down, stay, or any trick you have taught them. As long as they have to execute something in order to get what they want, it will start to become clear that you’re in charge, which is what your dog prefers anyway.

Don’t Use Ten Words When One Will Do.

In addition to using a confusing tone of voice, dog owners also sometimes talk too much. We have all seen that person attempting to get their dog to sit. “Sit Pepper….sit….sit….sssiiiiit…..Pepper SIT…..SIT PEPPER….SIT (dog finally sits), what a good boy!!!!!” When giving a command, the dog should be conditioned to execute that command the first time it is given, regardless of any distractions in the area. A dog like Pepper has been conditioned to sit when he feels like it — there is no sense of urgency to do as the owner commands.

If you find yourself in a risky situation, you need to be able to redirect your dog in 3 words or less. Screaming “NO” and yanking on the leash will only exacerbate the situation. You should be able to draw your dog’s attention from a stimulus, redirect it to you, and then be able to give them an alternative. When I work with reactive dogs, we do not go out into the real world until I know we have developed a good rapport, and a “sit-stay” (when the dog will sit by my side until released) that will hold up in a high stress situation. When we come across a potentially high-stress situation, I know the dog will look to me for guidance. When I calmly and evenly give the command to ‘sit,’ the dog knows that I have the situation under control, and it is in their best interest to follow my direction. At that point, it is up to me to ensure that I do not allow the stressor to go any further, either by defusing the situation or moving the dog to a safe distance from the stimulus.

Lead by example

Your dog should look to you for guidance on how to respond to a variety of scenarios. Speaking in an even tone when in a high stress situations demonstrates that you are not panicked or stressed by the scenario, thus sending the message that your dog should not be either.

The majority of dogs are born followers. However, if they sense weakness, insecurity, or are in a home with inconsistent structure, they may try to take control. Dogs like knowing what to expect — it makes them feel secure. Having the situation under control is communicated not only by what you say, but how you say it.


Andrew Horan
About Andrew Horan 1 Article
Andrew Horan is the owner of Citizen K9 located in Gainesville, VA. Certified in Canine Training and Behavior Modification through the Triple Crown Academy, he has been training dogs professionally since 2010. He lives in Gainesville with his wife Diane, two children, Olivia and Owen, and two dogs, Capone and Lilo.

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