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Stop Talking to Your Dog

Ren Volpe June 23, 2020
Three dogs playing in a field with one asking the humans to 'Please STOP TALKING!'

Chatting with your dog is totally normal. In fact, research shows that those who talk to their dogs are smarter than those who don’t. But during training or when out on walks, sometimes shutting your mouth is the best way to speak so they will listen.

Canine researcher Stanley Coren found that the average dog can learn up to 165 words. A border collie named Chaser became famous for acquiring a vocabulary of more than 1,000 words. Chaser had three years of intensive training for 4–5 hours each day as part of a formal research project. Dogs need association, repetition, and training to be able to respond to most words.

Unlike humans, dogs are not verbal. Most of what we say to them is irrelevant background noise. Your dog has probably already learned that certain sounds refer to specific things or actions, like “ball” or “walk”. Say the word “walk” right before leashing up your dog and over time she will associate the word with going outside. Dogs can be taught to respond to commands in French or Chinese or Swahili. You could teach your dog to sit whenever you say the word “artichoke”. There is nothing special about the words “walk” or “ball” or any other word.

Dogs cannot understand abstract concepts but we often talk to them like they are children, expecting that if we repeat the same ideas over and over eventually the dog will figure it out. At any dog park you’ll hear an endless stream of “gentle”, “be nice”, “quiet”, “no jumping”, and of course the ubiquitous “NO!”. If any of these human words were magically imbued with meaning that dogs understood, training your dog wouldn’t be necessary at all.

Telling your dog "no" doesn't work

If saying "no" to your dog actually worked, then no one would ever have to hire a professional dog trainer. The same goes for shouting. Yelling angrily might distract your dog from doing something naughty, but that’s not training - you’ve just temporarily interrupted the behavior. Studies show that dogs learn new skills faster when their training does not include the use of a "no reward marker" (verbally letting the dog know they’ve made an error). You should also ditch the "ah-ah" and focus on reinforcing the behaviors you want instead of correcting your dog’s mistakes.

Teach hand gestures first

Many dogs respond better to hand signals than spoken language. Teach hand signals for basic cues like sit, down, and stay before adding the verbal cue. Use food with hand gestures to lure your dog into position. Once your dog consistently understands a hand signal then combine it with the word and you can fade out the gesture.

Your dog’s name is not a cue

Any parent can attest that a steady stream of "mom, mom, mom, mom, mom" will be ignored or met with an irritated, "what do you need?". Repeating your dog’s name without telling them what you want them to do is useless. "Sammy, sit" or "Sammy, come" (if Sammy already knows how to sit and come) is the proper way to ask your dog to do something.

Say it only once

If your dog doesn’t respond to a command, do not repeat it. If you are repeating "come come come come" and your dog is walking away from you, the problem isn’t the word "come" or temporary deafness, the problem is you haven’t properly trained your dog to come when called. At best, repeating a command until your dog responds teaches them they only have to sit when after you’ve said "sit" five times. At worst, you’ve just trained your dog to ignore your verbal cues.

What about tone of voice?

Your dog may respond when you sound serious or angry, but is that really the kind of relationship you want? Training should be fun for both you and your dog. If training starts feeling like a chore, take a break and try again later, preferably with some hotdogs or cheese for reinforcement. When asking for a behavior, pair your dog’s favorite treats with a cheerful voice and watch them willingly and happily participate.

Dog owners frequently convey their own anxiety by saying their dog’s name in a stern voice to prevent them from negatively reacting to another dog. But your dog may easily interpret your nervous "Lucy, Luuuucy, be nice" as "Lucy, that dog is making me nervous, be on guard!". If you are unsure about your dog greeting another dog, loosen any tension on the leash, toss a treat, and greet the other dog with an upbeat, "Hello puppy!". When off leash, teach a solid recall (using a happy voice) and give a treat when she turns away from the other dog and comes to you.

Try silent (or whisper) training sessions

You probably remember a teacher in school that yelled all the time while her students ignored her. Maybe you also had a favorite teacher who got the entire class to settle down with a quiet and calm voice. Try some silent training sessions with your dog using only hand signals. Dogs have exceptional hearing — why not practice whispering your cues? When off leash my dogs have learned that a simple click of the tongue means they’ll get a treat if they check-in. No hollering required.

When talking to your dog is helpful

Dogs do respond well to verbal encouragement, but too often we expect them to work for praise alone. Most of us would stop showing up for our jobs if we only got a compliment and a pat on the back from the boss. If you want your dog to do what you ask, pay up with more than just words by pairing praise with food.

None of this means that you shouldn’t ever chat with your dog. I have entire conversations with my dogs when sitting on the couch, or in the car, or lounging around on the bed first thing in the morning. But when we are out on a walk or at the park or anywhere I need them to pay attention or follow directions, I am a woman of few words. When I speak, they listen, and then they get a treat.

Confused looking dog with the caption 'What language are you even speaking?'
About the author:
Ren Volpe is a Professional Dog Trainer and a Certified Behavior Consultant. She is also the crazy dog lady behind GoDogPro, a new online service that matches dog owners with force-free dog professionals godogpro.com