It’s in the Tone!

black and white corgi in yellow spike vest sits panting a field

“It has to do with your tone of voice! Dogs respond to the tone not the words!”

black and white corgi in yellow spike vest sits panting a field
How many times have you heard that in the past?

I’ve heard it many times. Most often in reference to the way a person is “supposed” to give commands or cues. How if your tone is firm, no nonsense, authoritative, the dog will respond “better.” But thing is, I haven’t found much truth to it. One bit of truth is such tone can be intimidating to some dogs, so they respond to lessen the risk of conflict escalating. And another bit of truth I can find in it is, such tone isn’t the everyday ‘how I speak to others’ tone for most folks, so to speak with such often takes some conscious thought which means higher chance of consistency. Conscious thought and higher rate of consistency on the human’s end often equals higher chance of response on the dog’s part. The tone is just a by product. But beyond that, not much.

A statement I have found true though is, “It has to do with reinforcement history. Dogs respond to what has worked for them in the past, past behavior predicts future behavior.”

I’ve found I don’t much like how I feel when I sound all commanding and drill Sargent. I don’t like how I feel when I’m barking demands at my dogs. I have dogs in my life because I like them, I like my dogs. I generally don’t bark demands at those beings who I like, those I enjoy spending time with, those who I want to also enjoy spending time with me. So I try to refrain from practicing such behavior. Sometimes I fail at it.

Recently I found myself barking a lot on our walks in the woods. Zora was finding things to eat, primarily frozen dog poop (aka garbage), which makes me worry and also annoys me and makes me want to gag. I found myself commanding in that stern ego filled “I am in charge here do as I say!” tone at her to “Come! Leave it! Stop eating garbage!!” Walks that normally are the relaxing highlight of my day, instead left me feeling cross and completely ineffective, since rightly so Zora was finding doing what she wanted way more reinforcing than engaging with her ridiculous human. If you ever want a dog to train you right, remind you of your flaws, and demand you step the heck up and do better, get a corgi.

By the end of the 2nd walk (yup, it took me 2 entire walks, I’ve been doing this near 20yrs and still it took 2 full walks) I thankfully had that moment of clarity. “What in the heck am I doing?! This so isn’t working. I know better than this!” Took a breathe, laughed at my ridiculous self, thanked my dog for being brilliant, and thought through a more effective approach. Planning my cues, defining criteria, reinforcing recalls, reviewing our foundation leave it skills, providing more appropriate outlets on the walks for her sniffing hunting, upping my level of awesome in my little dog’s eyes, finding endless opportunities to reinforce all the things she does that I love and appreciate. By half way through our next walk with me now in training mode, Zora had decreased her garbage hunting 90%. I didn’t utter a single “leave it” the entire walk, I never told her she couldn’t eat garbage, I did provide ample opportunities for behaviors other than garbage seeking to equal awesome fun. By stepping back, creating a plan, shifting into training gear, nixing my stern commanding “can’t you just do what I want you to do dog so I don’t have to work very much at this!?” tone for my usual voice, my stress level dropped, my dog and I are back on happy terms, and our walks are back to feeling good. And added bonus, she’s not eating garbage.

Plan cues consciously, build criteria clearly, reinforce consistently, train thoughtfully. Oh and thank my lucky stars I have dogs who forgive my indiscretions and remind me to do better when I err.

black and white corgi in yellow vest lies on car seat, black lab cross in guide dog harness lies with his head resting on the corgi
Heading home after a successful walk in the woods.  Zora just tolerating the fact Mr Tom is sleeping on her.

2 thoughts on “It’s in the Tone!

  1. As a pet sitter, I can hardly stand it when clients tell me to use a stern tone of voice to make sure their dog knows who is in charge. Argh!!! I do find, however, an excited tone of voice, like I’m asking for the best thing in the whole wide world, can help, but can’t replace training properly. And then there are those days or moments when Gracie, 9 months old, can just simply drive me to distraction no matter the training, and we both need a little time out.

    1. I totally hear you! Excited, happy, I often remind clients to smile when they speak to their dog and train, as I’ve found if you’re face in in a smile configuration it’s much easier for folks to avoid ‘the tone’. and yup 9months old lol oh that age, thank goodness they’re so cute!

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