Your Voice and Your Dog

by Karen Farkas

Over the past several years I have participated in, taught, and observed a number of obedience classes and worked with several puppies—my own and others. I have seen effective and ineffective trainers. The difference between the two has less to do with lead handling and timing— though these are surely important—than with the ability of the trainer to use his voice. A trainer whose voice changes markedly in tone and quality as he gives a correction, a command, or praise, usually has a dog who pays attention and responds to him. Too often, as you listen to the sounds of an obedience class in progress, the trainers are barely audible, the tone of their voices varying little as they say "Good dog," "No! stay," or "Chumly, heel." The dogs are focusing, not on their handlers, but on all the surrounding distractions.

Your voice is the key to effective communication with your dog. The tone, the commitment, the mood you convey in giving her a command, in praising her, in talking and playing with her, determine the quality of her response to you. Consider your voice a tool that you use in three basic areas of relating to your dog:

  • In training and socializing a new puppy.
  • In teaching commands as you obedience train your dog. "Voice control" is the ultimate goal of all basic obedience training.
  • In talking to your dog as companion.

As I begin a discussion of these three aspects of voice relationship with your dog, I want you to keep the following vignette in the back of your mind:

Scene: The armory. First night of a Basic Obedience Class. Sweet, soft voice: "Sit, sit, Terry, sit, sit…sit, sit, sit siiit, sit…..(Terry looks around at the other dogs, makes a flying leap at the poodle next to him. He resists the annoying pressure of a hand pushing down on his rump.) Sweet, soft voice: "I just can’t get him to do anything."

Puppies—Correction, Praise, Encouragement
"No" is overused and frequently unconvincing to a young puppy. When the puppy errs—chews on the rug, chews on the table leg, chews on your leg—an uncommitted, innocuous, "No, No, Dear, No, No," communicates nothing. You don’t even have the pup’s attention. "NO!" is a GROWL. Your voice is deep, firm, sharp—not shrill. "No!" need not be a word at all, but instead, the "NO!" tone of voice can be an "AH! AH!" or "Pfui!" "No!" means, "Whatever you’re doing, stop it immediately." That’s how your puppy should come to understand the deep, sharp growl sound of your voice. The idea is to startle her, to interrupt her concentration on some destructive behavior and to get her attention on you.

You have her attention with your stern "No!" Now what? "No!" should be contrasted with approval. Be prepared to introduce some constructive, praiseworthy activity after you’ve corrected your puppy. Give her one of her own toys to chew on. Praise her.

Praise is upbeat, happy, assuring. Your voice conveys warmth. You are smiling. Praise need not be high-pitched and silly. It should, however, be dramatically different from the sound you make when you say "NO!" "Gooood, dog. That’s good." Your voice lets your puppy clearly distinguish when you are pleased or displeased.

The greatest value of very early puppy training is the opportunity you create for your puppy to succeed and be praised for desirable behavior. A pup who receives no basic table and obedience training—to stand, sit, stay, come and walk on a loose lead, is a pup destined to hear "NO" incessantly for her first six months and longer. No matter how well you use your voice to deliver a resounding growl, your effectiveness can only be diminished by all correction and no praise. Brief lessons in basic obedience and handling, where your puppy has your undivided attention, and you require hers, will give her a chance to earn praise and will facilitate later, more serious training.

Correction and praise are fundamental ways you can use your voice in puppy rearing. A third essential use of your voice in raising and socializing your puppy is to express encouragement. Even the most self-confident pup sometimes meets a new object, person, or situation that gives her pause. You want to encourage her to overcome her fear and approach what she wants to avoid. You give encouragement in a positive, jovial, matter-of-fact tone of voice. "Say hello to the fire hydrant!" "Let’s go meet the garbage bag!" "Let’s talk to the UPS man!"

Encouragement is NOT comfort. If you coddle and comfort your baby as she confronts something or someone she fears, you only reinforce her sense that something is indeed wrong. Those sweet, anxious, mollifying tones usually accompanied by a hug are dysfunctional for the timid puppy. Encouragement is bright and confident. Use encouragement. Use your lead. Use food. But, insist that the puppy stand on her own four paws. You go up to the garbage bag yourself. Pat it. Talk to it. And, when the puppy approaches and sniffs it—PRAISE her. You don’t want a grown Briard to hide behind you when faced with the unfamiliar. Encouragement builds confidence. Praise reinforces it. Comforting undermines it.

I know I amused many passerby while socializing Genevieve as a pup; a grown woman, with a pint-sized bear on a leash, talking to and smiling at dump trucks, buses, and trash cans.

Teaching commands to any dog requires voice and enforcement. A command should be what its name implies: Commanding. Your voice is clear, firm, authoritative, no-nonsense, committed—not harsh or angry. The tone of your voice conveys your confidence that the dog will "do as you say." A command is not a polite invitation or a question. You’d be surprised how many trainers give a command as if it were punctuated with a question mark instead of a period or exclamation point. Commands should be direct and unambiguous.

Remember the "sweet, soft voice" in the scene at the beginning of this article. Sweet and soft wasn’t the only problem with that command. Use the dog’s name first. That gets her attention. Voice the command once, and enforce it. "Terry! Sit!" (Right hand pulls up on lead while left hand pushes down on dog’s rump at the base of tail. Terry is sitting.) "Goooood, dog." Giving any command several times before enforcement, or non-enforcement, teaches a dog not to listen. A corollary to this point is: if you are not in a position to enforce a command your dog has not thoroughly learned, do not give it. Your dog will listen to and respect a well delivered and immediately enforced command.

Remember praise. A dog in obedience training should hear the contrast between the authority of your commands and the warmth and pleasure or your praise as soon as she has complied.

Talk to your Briard
In voicing corrections, praise, encouragement, and commands to your dog, it is not so much what you say, as how you say it, that counts. Talking to your Briard, as she accompanies you through your day, is a form of communication that is informational. You are not demanding some particular behavior when you talk to your dog. You are creating the opportunity for her to learn a vocabulary by osmosis and repetition.

She is with you. You are going downstairs. You say, "let’s go downstairs." You’re going out the back door, out the front door. Tell her what’s happening as she moves along with you from place to place, to the car, on a ride. "Do you need a drink?" as you put her water bowl down. She can learn the names of family members and friends. All it takes is repetition. You can tell by her response when she understands a word. Say "canal" and Genevieve will give you a kiss and run excitedly to the front door—ready for a trip to our favorite jogging place.

Talking to your dog is a kind of voice communication that enriches the bond between you and further adds to the quality of her life as a member of the family.

Voice is truly your key to both a functional and companionable relationship with your dog. Listen to yourself as you work and play with your Briard. Is you voice communicating what you want your dog to hear and understand? Is she learning to listen to you or ignore you? Cultivate the theatrical in yourself if you find your corrections, praise, and commands all sound much the same. Your life together can be all the more fun and rewarding, the more you communicate and the more she understands.

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