Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Intonation Matters

Intonation Matters

Autistic author and animal advocate Temple Grandin explains in her book “Animals in Translation”, that as a child she was only able to pick up the tone of a spoken word to understand its meaning. She, and many others, believes that our dogs, too, are more receptive to how we say something than what we say.
Behaviorist, ethologist and author Dr. Patricia McConnell extensively researched that subject with a variety of mammals and elaborates on it in her book “The Other End of the Leash”. In it she explains that fast, high-pitched sounds, convey motion, excitement and stress, while drawn out, lower sounds signal calm and stationary.

Many of clients ask me how much intonation affects behavior. In my opinion and experience it can be very influential, but using the right tone can be a bit of an art, because it always depends on dog and situation.

A high-pitched and fast sound signals excitement, stress but also play arousal. Used with a come command, it can entice a dog to return faster cause he thinks there is a party going on where you’re at. That really worked for our confident Newf Baywolf, who was always keen to be where the action is. The same approach sent easily aroused Davie over the top; she started to bark and yip and jump. Davie never needs to be cheered on; a grounded, normal tone works best for her. Non-trusting and fearful feral-born Will, who perceived the excited recall as me being stressed, became even more suspicious and increased the distance to me. Instead of coming, she avoided me. For Will, the soft-spoken words instill the safety she needs to approach.

Think intonation when your dog runs away and chases something. The last thing you want is to use is a panicky and repetitive come, or stay, or stop, or NO, cause then you’re egging your pooch on to run faster still – away from you.

Lower toned and drawn out sounds signal calm and stationary. I use that intonation when I want my dogs to hold a position. Lower and sharp sounds I use if I want them to “knock it off”. It conveys that I mean it – that I tell them, rather than ask them.

Sometimes I encounter owners who use a regimental command tone all the time, for every request and for every dog, even the fearful and sensitive one, the one who gives clear appeasement and submissive signals.
Nowhere in nature is a regimental tone the way social members communicate with one another. Even in the military it is used only at work. Privately the communication is casual and strict rituals are not observed. So, lose that tone of voice with your dog, and especially if you invite him to join you for a walk, or you ask him to come. Your dog won’t want to be with you if you sound intimidating. You can use a regimental tone when you want to stop him in his tracks, but as soon as he shifts his focus back to you be your sweet and encouragingly self, so your dog can tell the difference when you are happy with him, and when you’re not.

Intonation is one of the reasons why many dogs respond better to a lower male voice, than a higher female voice. Another one is, by the way, because males maneuver space more confidently.
A dog who responds better to the male owner than he female is either afraid, or feels safer with the man. Which one it is becomes clear when one observes if the dog chooses voluntarily, without leash and choke collar, to be near the person, or if he’d avoid the person if he could.

I use my voice intentionally; let my dogs know when I am really happy with them, when they should move faster, or stay still, or knock it off. Usually I talk to them in a normal calm, grounded and neutral tone – the one I use with members of my own species. Understanding intonation can be a great asset to add clarity and help a dog succeed in training and every day life. Inadvertent mistakes can add an extra hurdle and make problem behaviors worse, or delay training success.


  1. Once again, you've written an insightful and meaningful post—one that deserves to be read several times over by people who seriously want to contemplate and learn more about how they relate to their dogs.

    In so many ways, the things you say about intonation support people being true to their own hearts, as clear as they can manage to be, and as sensitive and aware. So much of what you so eloquently describe seems natural, almost something that it seems to me we should take for granted. For example, a clear, sensitive, natural emotional response to a frightened individual is to go soft and quiet, which is harmonious with how you describe Will needs to be addressed in so many instances. A clear, attuned, natural response to a confident, self-assured, human-raised dog who knows and trusts you and has known no abuse, when that dog is not listening and is trying to get away with something that is not appropriate, would so often be to speak very firmly, even as though giving an order. No nonsense. But as you say, just for the moment! And once the dog is coming to you or whatever you've asked for, become encouraging, warm, and receptive again. I don't know if my descriptions of these situations fit exactly with what you advise in your post, but it's how I understand it. Because I'm thinking that if a person is natural, clear, and true to themselves, they'll do some of what you describe spontaneously.

    And yet being emotionally clear is something we humans have a terrible struggle with, on the whole! It's not easy at all! Most of us, like most dogs, have been affected by a whole number of factors that have made us less confident and oftentimes highly reactive, and we try to protect ourselves by showing fearfulness or compensate by being aggressive. If we were all emotionally clearer, the world would be a much saner, more humane place for all! So of course so very many of us are not yet able to be as attuned to our individual dogs, and as naturally appropriate in our way of relating to each one, as would be ideal. Which is why it's so marvellous that you are able to deliberately articulate some of the workings of this kind of attunement and instruct us in such a kindly and patient manner so that we may consciously move ourselves in a more sensitive and aware direction in how we relate to our dogs.

    Of course you may wish to clarify some of the things I am saying, since this is your area of expertise and I am responding to it with an understanding born more out of my own sensitivity. I wouldn't be the most confident dog for someone to work with! I would need a lot of positive encouragement. So I get the sensitive side of things pretty well by instinct.

    Anyway, thanks again for shining the light on these things, for dogs' sakes. I look forward to your future posts.

  2. Dear Oracle, your descriptions fit exactly what I am trying to say. Thank you for your comments.
    I believe the reasons why we are at times emotionally unclear is because humans are more cerebral than dogs - and much more pretentious because of it.
    In addition, there is so much contradictory information how dogs ought to be treated, and such an almost paranoid fear of the "aggressive alpha dog", that many layowners are concerned that if they follow their emotional intuition what is needed at the moment, the dog might take over and become an out-of-control predator.
    That is, in my opinion, also the reason why people overreact to a dog's slightest infraction.

  3. Sylvia, I learned this well when I started obedience with Kallie. It almost seemed as if she was annoyed at me when I used the more militant tone I was used to using with Chloe. I found out quickly that a light and fun voice works much better with her when I want her to do something, which can be hard to do when I get frustrated with her because she isn't doing as I ask, but as soon as I change my tone, I get results.

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