How to communicate with your dog

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Have you ever had someone tell you “it’s not what you say, but how you say it” ?  Because we are so dependent on email and texting, we sometimes lose the flavor, or “tone” of communication.   Tone is just as important when communicating with your dog as it is with people – maybe more. You can’t say “just kidding” to the dog.

When training, keep your communication short and sweet and give commands in an assertive tone.  That doesn’t mean being loud or mean.  Commands should be given calmly and with authority (and only once).  Your tone conveys what you want your dog to do as much as the command word itself.  I once did an experiment in a class where after the dogs had learned “sit” and I had explained about the tone of the command, I asked the participants to say the word “cupcake” instead of sit, but still use the same tone.  Every dog sat.  It was a good demonstration of the importance of tone.  Think about a puppy that you are housetraining.  When you come home and find an accident, you may yell. That does not tell the dog why you are mad (he doesn’t even remember doing it by now), it just tells him that you are yelling and looking at him. After too much of that, he will begin to cower or submissively urinate when you come in the door.  All he can figure out is that coming through that door makes you grumpy.

Try it yourself

To do your own experiment, answer your phone for a whole day with the same word “hello,” but use a different tone each time.  Try assertive (business-like) or with a question at the end, which is how a lot of dog commands are given — “Hellllooo?” Say it with a smile, while standing, while sitting, in the middle of a laugh. See if you get a different response from each person on the phone.  That is why you get different responses from your dog while training the same thing you thought he had down-pat yesterday.  Assertive and calm commands get calm and quick results. Giving the “sit” command in an excited tone will get you the quizzical “can-we-play-first?” look.

Changing your tone for effect

There are times when your tone should be amped up.  In a situation where your pup’s safety is involved, your tone and volume will probably be heightened. If your dog dashes out of the open gate and into the street, your tone will convey your concern.  He should be able to tell that this is no ordinary “come” or “stay.”  One of my dogs once found a bar of rat poison in the back yard (brought in by the squirrels from someone else’s yard) and before he could chomp and swallow, I screamed “leave it.”  And he did.  Although we had practiced “leave it,” I never really knew if he understood. I still believe it was my tone along with the command that did the trick.

I also have a more soothing, quiet tone when dealing with frightened or ill dogs, an excited laughing tone at play time, and I use a more calm tone when I am ready for playtime to be over. Try playing around with tone while spending time with your dog. It’s fun, educational, and just might change your everyday communication with your pup.

Terry Meeks is a dog trainer, APDT Member an CGC Evaluator in Pinellas County, Florida.  Find Four on the Floor Dog Training at and on Facebook.

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