Our vision of the speaker is a fluffy old lady cuddling her equally fluffy old dog. We smirk as she says this - what a lot of nonsense!
But wait! Maybe not so nonsensical!
Recent research has shown that not only do dogs process speech in a similar way to the way we process speech, but they also process emotions in those sounds - just as we do. Their brains are actually wired for sounds the same way ours are - pointing to our common ancestry over 100 million years ago. Add that we have been sharing our lives with each other for the last 18 - 32,000 years and we’ve kinda got used to each other.
Do you want to bark at your dog?
Many people think that to communicate with their dogs they have to give sharp, abrupt “commands”, eliciting instant compliance. They have been misled by waves of tv personalities who have encouraged this dysfunctional, one-sided, relationship.
While clarity is important to avoid confusion, switching to the sort of conversation we have with our friends and families - especially what we do with as yet non-verbal small children - actually conveys more information to your dog.
"Dogs and humans share a similar social environment," says Attila Andics of MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group in Hungary. "Our findings suggest that they also use similar brain mechanisms to process social information. This may support the successfulness of vocal communication between the two species." 1
If I’ve asked my dog to lie down, and after a while he forgets and moves off, rather than yell DOWN at him, I ask him in a quiet inquisitive voice, “What were you meant to be doing?” My dog pauses for a moment, processes both what he’s heard and the way it was said, and returns to lying down.
“The results do indicate that they don’t just pay attention to who is speaking and their tone of voice – they also, to some extent, hear the words we say.” says Victoria Ratcliffe, Doctoral candidate in Psychology at the University of Sussex. “So even if he doesn’t always respond, he is listening.” 2
We don’t yell single-syllable commands at people the same way we think we’re meant to yell at our dogs. We don’t say to our visitor, “Come in. I said Come in. Come IN! Get through that door NOW!” We focus on making the other person feel comfortable - and may smile, say “Come in,” make a welcoming gesture with our arm, perhaps make a whole body movement while we stand aside for them. It is the entirety of our communication that conveys information to our visitor. Standing rigid while barking abrupt commands would leave your guest confused and alarmed.
Good force-free trainers (not to mention millions of devoted dog-owners) know that speaking to your dog as a person is not only effective at getting your message across, but does it in a way that enhances your relationship while keeping your blood pressure down!
What do I do?
Here are a few steps you can take to change your approach to communicating with your dog.
1. Are you sure he knows what you mean?
Does your dog actually know what SIT means? People often expect their dog to arrive with a load of behaviours installed. Remember that when your new pup arrives, you are getting Dog 1.0 - the basic version, not the pre-programmed one. You have to provide all the add-ons and upgrades!
2. Pair your sound with his action.
The quickest way to teach a dog a word is to pair that word with his action. So you say SIT quietly while his bottom is going to the floor. You are labelling that movement as “sit”. Keep repeating this whenever he sits till he gets it, and you can say SIT and he’ll sit straight away. No need for wagging fingers or menacing body language. Just a soft voice will do.
3. Now you can sound like a human being and not a robot.
Once he’s got this, you can ask him to sit in a pleasant friendly way: “Would you sit over there?” “Sit down now, there’s a good boy.” “Come and sit beside me.” will now all work. I’m not saying he understands every word you are saying, of course, but he will certainly understand the gist and the underlying emotion. He may need to try a couple of things to see if that’s what you want. He may lie down instead of sitting. That’s ok - you’re not in an obedience competition.
4. Zip it!
Say it once, then zip it! Don’t rabbit on, repeating yourself. So if your dog is distracted when you ask him to sit, you don’t need to escalate your “sit, SIT, SIT!” and show frustration. Try a quiet “Did I ask you to sit?” or “What do you think you should do now?” It may amaze you, but you will most likely get a thoughtful response from your dog. Don’t forget to reward him warmly when he obliges!
5. Watch the Children.
Children can undermine your training by endlessly repeating your dog’s name. They like to roll words around in their mouths like fine wine and move into a sing-song litany. They may be “fighting” each other for the pup’s attention, or they may just have slipped into a habit of calling the dog without following through. Fran was continually calling her puppy’s name on one of our Puppy Walks, then ignoring the dog and wandering off. So I called her over and said “Fran,” “Fran,” “FRAN,” “Fran-NEE,” “Fran?” She grumpily said “What?!” It took her very little time to get annoyed and impatient with me, which demonstrated nicely what she was putting her dog through. She was expertly teaching him to ignore not only his name, but anything else she said!
6. Conflicting information.
Evidence that dogs take in the whole picture and not just an isolated sound is that if you make a sound and a signal simultaneously your dog will tend to miss the sound completely and follow the signal. As a non-verbal species dogs have a sophisticated body language to communicate with each other, so when there’s a conflict of information they will tend to choose what they see over what they hear. Hence in no.2 above, focus on the sound and don’t add extraneous body signals. If you always bend over or look like the Statue of Liberty when you say “sit”, your dog is going to be mightily puzzled when you say “sit” without your accompanying movements. You can always add hand signals later if you need them.
Was the Fluffy Old Lady Right?
You may not want to be a fluffy old lady or have a fluffy old dog, but at least that lady and her dog are happy and content with each other!
Nobody wants to live in a war zone, and not many wish to live in a military bootcamp. More and more countries round the world are declaring dogs and other animals to be sentient beings, not property, and their laws are being changed accordingly. This is a huge advance for our so-called “civilised society”. (Here in the UK, dogs are still possessions, like a chair, or a teapot.)
Cast off the shackles of what some tv “trainers” have advocated, and behave like a friend to your dog, not a prison guard.
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1. Attila Andics, Márta Gácsi, Tamás Faragó, Anna Kis, Ádám Miklósi. Voice-Sensitive Regions in the Dog and Human Brain Are Revealed by Comparative fMRI. Current Biology, February 2014 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.01.058
2. Victoria F. Ratcliffe, David Reby. Orienting Asymmetries in Dogs’ Responses to Different Communicatory Components of Human Speech. Current Biology, November 2014 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.10.030