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Your Dog Is Listening

Do you talk to your dog? Of course, you do.

Speaking to our dogs is as natural for us as talking to another person. In most cases, even if we do not like to confess, we do it. Humans are social beings, and so are dogs.

Of course, they do not understand us, or do they? Their expressions suggest they do. Research indicates that the average dog can understand between 100 and 200 words, about as many as a human toddler, while some "super" dogs can recognize 250-350 words. Chaser, a border collie, was tested and proven to have a vocabulary of more than 1,000 words!

A dog may not understand the meaning of a word as people do, but with time and practice, it can create an association between a particular sound (word) and an action or an object.

When we ask our dog to "sit," the dog has no idea what sit means, but when they've put their bottom on the ground before, when we've stood over them with a treat and made that sound, we rewarded them. Dogs like treats, so performing that action when they hear the sound "sit" works for them.

My dog loves to hear the sound of "go," meaning we are going to do something she loves. The thing she loves is the reward she wants for getting moving. "Go to the car," I might say. "Go get it" could mean to break her stay to go after a "ball" or "Frisbee," two words she also knows well. When I say, "Go jump," she immediately scans for the nearest hoop or bar to leap over. When some distance away from me, yelling "straight" to her causes her to accelerate to a full sprint in my direction and blast between my legs to catch her "Frisbee" tossed behind me, a real test of confidence for both of us. At two years old, my girl is still learning words and creating associations.

Think about your dog for a second, and you can come up with some specific words or phrases you might say your dog recognizes and responds to with an action or a tilt of the head. You can create some word associations, as we do in our obedience classes at Awesome Dog Academy, by saying a word and rewarding the wanted reaction from the dog. Start small when trying this. "Go get me a beer from the refrigerator" is a bit too complex.

Talking to your dog is important in other ways, too. 

Hearing your voice is rewarding in itself. It is a sign to the dog that you are paying attention to them which, along with eye contact and touch, is one of the things dogs crave from their humans. These forms of attention contribute significantly to our relationship and bonding. As a trainer, I encourage all dog owners to give their dogs this kind of positive attention. They'll love it.

When my dog was young, which seems like only yesterday, I noticed she would tilt her head at the sounds of certain words when my voice had a particular inflection. With her eyes locked on my face, she listened for meaning in the sounds I made as I spoke, intently listening and processing. What I discovered was how mentally stimulating my words were for her. What she was not doing was running around like a crazy puppy and finding trouble. Often, she would listen for a while, then put her head down and begin to fall asleep. The scenario reminded me of how parents might read a bedtime story to toddlers calmly and soothingly. I have encouraged some of my students with dogs who cannot settle to try reading a children's bedtime story to their dogs while giving special attention to the sound of their voice and eye contact. It becomes adorable and a strong relationship builder.

I encourage my students to talk to their dogs all of the time. They will learn verbal cues without much effort, perhaps as quickly as they learned their name from constantly hearing it said.

When leash walking, speak to your dog. In addition to your verbal attention being rewarding and comforting, they learn in this way, too. As I walk my dog, I constantly give her feedback that becomes useful and informative to her. I might say, "Turn right" in a sweet, higher-toned voice as we begin to make the turn, and, in time, she begins to make the turn with no input from the leash. I also say, "Easy," in a deeper, slower tone and slow my pace if she starts trying to go too fast. If I say, "Wait," in a sharper voice, as we pause, she also learns to pause.

Once, I had a female student in a beginner obedience class who had trouble getting her dog to focus on neighborhood walks. Her dog would pull to the end of the leash in one direction and then the other. I told her to spend more time talking to the dog.

"Talk to him about anything," I said. "You can tell him about your day at work, what you'll have for dinner, even what you think about your neighbor's yard. He'll do better if he just hears your voice."

"Well, I'm a singer," the owner said. "I love to sing to myself all the time. Could I sing to him?"


Over the course of a few weeks, the woman's dog and she became more relaxed on their walks.

The tone of voice is as important as the spoken word to our dogs. They learn quickly that different tones mean different things. Think about the sound a squeak toy makes. The high-pitched squeaky sound is stimulating for dogs. Now, compare that with the lack of interest a dog might have when you are calling them in from roaming around the backyard while you are late for work. Which tone of voice is the dog likelier to respond to, a squeaky, happy sound or one filled with anxiety and frustration?

Dogs primarily communicate through body language, the often unnoticed changes in posture, tail wagging, and glances. Body language is their language, and the spoken word is ours. In training, we usually use body language techniques such as luring to begin communicating with our dogs, but in time, we also attach a word to an action. 

Our voices can provide much to our dogs in the way of communication, reward, attention, and bonding if we use them correctly. 

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