In the second part of this series, I look at using sound to communicate more effectively with your dog.
Whatever action you want your dog to perform requires giving them an appropriate signal that they understand. The three primary aids for signals dogs understand include sound, sight and touch or a combination of these.
I once read a fascinating study about what sounds horses respond to. After much experimentation, researchers concluded that horses react to two types of sound: short sharp sounds for action and long drawn out sounds for calming. For example, the type of sound is extremely important if a horse was bolting and the rider was trying to stop it. In this situation, you would not hear the rider making sounds like “giddy up” or “click, click, click”. No, you’d hear a long drawn out soothing sound like “whoaaaa” or “eeeeasy”.
In my experience this same principle applies equally to dogs with amazing results.
Action sounds such as “come”, “sit”, “up”, and “quick” are short clipped sounds that command our dog’s attention. Calming sounds such as “steady”, “stay”, “stand”, and “wait” are long, drawn out and help soothe our dog. Keep in mind, however, that these words are for us. The sound – and only the sound – is what matters to our dog. The pitch and tone of our voice lets the dog know whether action or calming is required. The actual word used for any task is irrelevant to the dog we are not asking them to act out the task by word alone, but to look to us for the all important sight signal that follows.
Somewhat controversially, I personally do not believe dogs understand any human forms of verbal or linguistic communication. Some people will swear black and blue that their dogs understand exactly what they’re saying. You’ve probably seen people at dog shows or even just down the street leaning over their dog, face flushed and frowning, wagging their index finger and saying things like, “I told you not to do that!”. Perhaps you even do this yourself (I know my wife and daughter do).
You might’ve also noticed the dog responding by cocking its head from side to side in puzzlement as if to say, “I have absolutely no idea what you are saying – in fact, you’ve got me totally confused”. The fact is, you can’t have a meaningful discussion or conversation with your dog in ‘human speak’. All your dog will be hearing is “blah, blah, blah”. It would be the same if someone were speaking to you in a foreign language you didn’t understand but expected that you should.
Adding to our dog’s confusion is our tendency to use words that make a sound that is opposite to the action we require. One classic example is when a dog breaks gait or jumps in the ring and you hear their handler attempt to correct this action by using a short clipped “ah, ah”, which makes an action sound when actually the handler wants the dog to calm down.
So, when it comes to communicating with your dog, the golden rules for the use of sound signals are:
- Keep it simple
- Use short sharp sounds for action
- Use low, long drawn out soothing sounds for calming.
In the next part of this series, I’ll be looking at sight signals.