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.