Does Your Dog Pay Attention When You Speak?
I want you to imagine two friends. Let’s call the first one Cathy. You like Cathy well enough, but whenever you’re together, Cathy likes to talk. And talk. And talk. Sometimes you wonder if you even need to participate in the conversation at all. Then there’s Fran. When Fran speaks, she has something to say. Her words may not be plentiful, but they’re thoughtful. Between Cathy and Fran, whom do you pay more attention to? Chances are, Cathy’s constant stream of consciousness begins to flow past as you pick out words and ideas here and there, while Fran’s more meaningful utterances take solid root in your mind.
When it comes to speaking to your dog, are you a Chatty Cathy or a Focused Fran? As a professional trainer, I have seen way too many people chatter on and on to their dogs, sometimes almost incessantly. As for the dogs’ understanding any of it, it makes me think of that old Peanuts cartoon where Charlie Brown hears the teacher’s voice only as “Wah-wah-WAH-wah.” Our poor dogs! We teach them the meaning of words like, “Sit,” “Stay,” “Wait” and so on, and then we drown those cues in a sea of meaningless words that makes picking out the salient one almost impossible. And then we get frustrated when our dogs don’t listen.
Cathy and Fran are at opposite ends of the spectrum; most people fall somewhere in between in how they relate to their dogs. What about you? The next time you take a walk with your dogs, try this: Talk to your dogs only when giving them directions. Your speech need not be limited to traditional obedience cues such as those mentioned above. For example, if, when you plan to go left you normally use a phrase such as, “This way,” that’s fine. What you shouldn’t do is inquire, “Did you find something good to sniff?” or opine, “Oh, look how cute you are!” (Okay, that last one can be difficult, I know!) If you’ve never tried this type of challenge, you might be surprised at how difficult it can be. But it’s worthwhile; being sparing with your words will result in a dog who is much more tuned in to you when you do speak.
A while back, I did an experiment with my own dogs, Sierra and Bodhi. I’d previously taught them a number of tricks using verbal cues paired with hand signals. (I could have taught them to respond to one or the other separately but frankly, it wasn’t that important to me.) I asked each dog for “Spin,” “Bow,” “Head down” and “Go to your mark.” I first requested the behaviour by using words only, being careful not to give away any clues with my body, face or eyes. Next, I tried cueing only with the hand signal. My results? Neither dog responded to the verbal cues alone. In fact, Bodhi looked at me as though I’d sprouted antlers. With the hand signals, both dogs performed much better. The findings in my own little experiment are consistent with what I already knew: dogs are much more keyed in to our body language than they are to our words.
Dogs observe our body language so much more than we realize. They seem to know before we even tell them which direction we’re planning to walk. They notice what we’re looking at by following our gaze. They can read our smallest gestures. It’s not that dogs don’t respond to our words. Of course they do. But taking a break from rambling chatter makes you realize two things: one, just how useful body language cues can be in instructing your dog and, two, it is much, much easier for a dog to focus on a verbal cue such as “Come!” when it’s not floating amid a sea of other words, as in, “I need you to come right now!” or, worse, when our desire is expressed as a phrase that doesn’t even contain the conditioned word, as in, “Get over here right now!”
I challenge you to try the Focused Walk experiment. Remember, no talking to your dogs except when using instructive cues they already know, and when you do use them, say only those words without burying them in surrounding chatter. You might be surprised at how much more focused on you your dogs will be when you do speak. Maybe you’ll even be inspired to incorporate this newfound focus into your everyday life with your dog.
*Nicole Wilde is an award-winning author of ten books on canine behaviour. Her books, seminar DVDs, and Wilde About Dog blog can be found at nicolewilde.com.