In the comments of an earlier lesson (Part One of Teaching Your Dog to Sit, Lie Down, and Stay - On the Box), one of our readers asked a great question about the importance of using your voice when you're doing box-work with your dog. Is it important to speak to your dog? What does talking to your dog contribute to (or detract from) your training? In this article, we're going to specifically address the two components of your vocalization (energy and communication), and talk about when, if ever, you should be using your voice in dog training.
Using your voice adds energy to the situation
Since we in the world of Natural Dog Training are always talking about managing our dog's energy, it follows that it's important to have an awareness of how our voice is affecting the energy state of our dog. At the most basic level of interaction, when you talk to your dog you are adding energy to your dog's experience of the current situation. Your diaphragm pushes air out of your lungs and through your vocal chords, causing sound waves to vibrate outwards from your mouth (and you thought you were just talkin'!). Those sound waves are energy that your dog experiences on a physical level, both as vibrations that they sense with their body, and "sounds" translated by the eardrum into auditory sensations. The sound energy that you create has the potential to affect your dog in a number of ways - primarily based on the frequency of the sound. Low frequency (and/or quieter) sounds are more soothing, while higher pitched (and/or louder) sounds are more stimulating.
While a loud, high-pitched sound has the potential to interrupt the flow of whatever your dog is doing (e.g. you yell "No!" and your dog drops the ham sandwich), it often has the effect of intensifying your dog's action in the moment. That's why yelling "No!" at your dog once they've decided to chase a squirrel usually has zero impact on their behavior - you might as well be yelling "Go get that squirrel!" - not because your dog doesn't understand the meaning of "No" (though it's debatable), but because, in that situation, your dog is already in the flow of chasing that squirrel. By adding energy to the system with your voice, you are actually fuelling your dog's squirrel hunt. It's like spinning a basketball on your fingertip - in order to keep the ball balanced, you have to keep the ball spinning. So you whack the ball with your other hand, making it spin faster, and keeping it fixed on the tip of your finger. Hopefully this is making sense to you - the "whacks to keep the ball spinning" are the same as yelling "No" at your squirrel-chasing canine - the energy added to the system makes it easier for whatever flow already exists (ball spinning or dog chasing) to keep on flowing.
Using your voice to communicate
Dogs rarely use their own "voices" to communicate with each other, and you could actually see the interdog effect of whimpers/growls/barks simply on the level of "what is the energy doing to the system". The doggie equivalent of "hi, how are you today?" is much more physical, related to body position, action, and smells. However, dogs definitely seem to learn the meaning of things like "Sit" or "Ball" or "Walk" - so they DO have a capacity to understand whatever language you're speaking. After all, if you want your dog to lie down at a distance from you, you have to be able to communicate your intent somehow - and yelling "Down!" seems to do the trick.
Remember that energy comes before communication
Always, always, always our dogs are responding to the way that their environment makes them feel. A verbal cue will only work if it makes sense in the context of how your dog is feeling in the moment. If your dog doesn't yet understand the language of your command, then they will be responding to the way that your command contributes to the way they feel. If you're adding energy to the system (your dog) with your words, then your dog might lie down - or your dog might keep running after that squirrel. It's not about your dog learning to speak English (or whatever your language is) better - it's about making sure that your obedience "commands" are always congruous with the energy of the moment. That's why, in Natural Dog Training, we always focus first on getting our dogs used to the feeling of doing such-and-such, and we do so at higher and higher levels of emotional stimulation.
What your body says is always more important than what your mouth says
What your dog reads from your body language is always more important than what you're saying (and the same is generally true for human interaction as well, right?). I often encourage my clients to spend a week NOT TALKING to their dog at all - instead just focusing on what they do and how what they do is affecting their dog. Can they encourage their dog to come closer with body language alone? Do certain things seem to get their dog more excited, nerved up, crazed? Do other things help their dog settle and relax? Are some actions perfectly neutral?
We humans are always talking, talking, talking. If we're not talking to other people, we're talking to ourselves, either out loud or with a near-constant stream of inner dialogue. A great exercise for you (along with not talking to your dog) would be to simply notice whenever you're talking. What are you saying? Why are you talking in that moment? Is it with purpose, or is it out of habit? Is it out of nervousness? When you hear the inner dialogue, try asking yourself "Who's talking right now?" Wait for an answer. See if you can quiet your mind (and your mouth) - and when you do, notice whether or not it affects YOUR experience of the world.
How to use your voice when working with your dog
Generally, when I train, I primarily see my voice on the level of "energy interaction". I use a deep "Good Dog" to help a dog relax as I massage them, and I use a more excited, enthusiastic "Good Dog" when I'm trying to fuel the RIGHT behavior, by adding energy to the system. Since I'm generally focused on trying to get a dog to do the right thing (instead of scolding them for doing the wrong thing), then almost all of my intense vocal input is simply helping to keep a dog's motor revving. Occasionally (very occasionally) I will use a loud, harsh "Aye!" in an attempt to interrupt the flow of whatever a dog is currently doing - but that is definitely minimal in my human-to-dog interaction.
During my apprenticeship with Kevin Behan, most of my initial time was spent simply getting used to the physical mode of interacting with the dogs we were training. I did think about it (usually reflecting after the fact) - but mostly I was just trying my best to be in the moment, observing how a dog was responding and how that related to what I was physically doing. At this point, the give-and-take comes naturally, but it took time to get there - so you need to be patient with yourself as you learn this new way of interacting with your dog.
As for teaching the vocal commands (sit, down, stay) - they always come later, once I can see that the dog is getting the feeling of a given behavior. In other words, I don't start saying "Sit" until a dog is already sitting reliably, and then I say "Sit" at the instant the dog is already about to sit. Same for "Down", and same for "Stay" - your dog will associate the word with an already-learned behavior. In effect, you're teaching your dog the meaning of the word before you teach them the word - and it's always easier to understand language if you get the context. In the case of teaching a dog to push, I start using "Ready" and the dog's name pretty early on - but I still spend crucial time at the beginning simply hand-feeding, silently, and getting a dog accustomed to the feeling of being fed with one hand and massaged with my other hand at the same time. When the "Ready....Sparky!" gets introduced, it's still primarily working on an "energetic" level, and it's not until later that a dog will respond to those words as communication.
As you interact with your dog, focus on your body language. Hold off on vocal interaction as much as possible, so that you can give yourself the experience of communicating with your dog in a language that your dog truly understands. The more fluent you get in physical interaction, the more you'll start to see the affect that your vocal interaction has on your dog. As you do use your voice, remember that you are primarily adding energy to the system. By the time you get to the "using your voice to actually communicate meaning" stage, make sure that your dog already knows the meaning (i.e. the behavior) before you try to teach them the word for that behavior. In our house, where we're always trying to prolong baby nap-time for as long as possible, I'm always grateful that I can get Nola to stay put with my body language alone - especially when she's positioned herself on the hardwood floor outside my son's resting place and I want to prevent any unnecessary clickety-clacking of dog nails on maple. You may find your own uses for the silent commands, but most of all I think that you'll appreciate the feeling of real communication with your dog, a feeling that comes from really tuning into the dynamic of energy exchanged between the two of you.