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Clicker Training in the Greater Phoenix Area By Gary Wilkes

Clicker Training Articles


Dog Care and Behavior Articles

What Tone Do You Take With Your Dog?

The other day I was in one of those huge pet-food mega-store. A woman was having difficulty keeping her dog under control. She pulled and tugged on the dog’s leash and kept up a running, one-sided conversation with her dog. As the dog continued to buck and pitch, her voice got more harsh. The dog didn’t seem to notice. After about 20 seconds, an employee showed up and quietly asked the dog to sit, while waving a small treat in front of the dog’s face. Not surprisingly, the dog suddenly paid attention to the soft spoken and treat-laden employee. So much for “tone of voice.”

For the last few thousand years, people have modified their speech when asking their dogs to do things. While some owners prefer a harsh, loud yell, others favor a hissed-through-clinched-teeth-paramilitary command-tone. Regardless of the style, the logic behind these methods is obvious – commands should be verbally intimidating. Other trainers recommend that you overly enunciate the words, while others prefer that you bark the commands, in imitation of your dog’s ancestors. As all of these recommendations area capable of failure, it’s also obvious that real obedience isn’t all about being verbally threatening. 

A couple of real-life example points out the fallacy of tonal obedience. The same dog that won’t stay, even when you scream at him, can hear a potato chip fall on thick carpet from 20 feet away. Before the chip has a chance to bounce, the dog has unerringly raced to the spot and devoured it. The chip has no power to intimidate, yet has an ability that many macho owners don’t – the ability to get the dog to “come”, consistently. The most powerful proof of this phenomenon is as close as your own front door. All dogs who live in houses react to the doorbell. No one sets out to teach this association. Despite the fact that behavior is self taught, the dogs surpasses all standards of obedience when the doorbell begs for attention. Consider this…

  • The doorbell does not have to be repeated to get 100% obedience.
  • The dog can hear the doorbell faintly from a distance and still give 100% accuracy and enthusiasm.
  • The doorbell never changes its “tone of voice.”
  • Few people realize this conundrum – a $7.00 doorbell has better control than almost all professional dog trainers. Despite this fact, owners commit the sin of repeated commands, thereby destroying any chance of consistent control. The assumption is that if Fluffy won’t come when called, call again, louder. “Fluffy, come.....Come......COME!.....FLUFFY-YOU-GET- HERE-THIS-INSTANT!!!” All this bellowing will eventually teach Fluffy to wait until you are quite red in the face before bothering to follow your orders. If you still believe in the power of repeated commands, let me remind you of something. Go ring your doorbell and see how many times it takes to get Fluffy’s attention. How is it that a doorbell does not need to yell or repeat itself, but humans do?

One of the reasons that these erroneous rules have been overwhelmingly accepted is that they can easily become self fulfilling prophecies. If you get into the habit of saying all your commands in a loud voice, Fluffy will soon ignore soft commands. You have inadvertently told her that the sound of the command is not as important as how loud it is.If you fall into the loudness trap, you may soon be using multiple commands, as well. When Fluffy ignores your soft command the first time, you will automatically repeat yourself, louder. Now you are convinced that it was the loudness of the command that caused the behavior to fail. If you get into this habit of trying your commands in a regular tone of voice and then escalating the volume, you may soon find yourself repeating commands until Fluffy obeys.

In nature, animals must listen to subtle sounds in order to survive. The secret behind getting your animal to pay attention to you has little to do with the loudness of your voice, the shortness of the commands or how many times you repeat yourself. The real secret to obedience is to make your pet’s responses connected to predictable consequences. If you find yourself repeating your commands, speaking harshly, yet getting little response, here is a simple program for getting back on track.

  • Get some tasty food treats and let your dog know you have them. Touch a treat to your dog’s nose and ask for a simple behavior, such as “sit.” Make sure you don’t say it twice, or loudly. If your dog sits within three seconds, offer some praise and a treat. Move to a new location and try again. If your dog doesn’t sit by the count of three, say “wrong” in a normal tone of voice and put the treats away for about 5 minutes – then try it again.
  • Start holding training sessions before meals. Use some of your dog’s food as treats during the sessions. 
  • If you ask for a behavior, make sure you don’t “give in” and settle for less than prompt performance. If you don’t get the behavior in a timely fashion, enforce a short 30 second time-out. During that time, you should ignore the dog. At the end of the time-out, don’t offer any treats or affection unless the dog performs a prompt version of a behavior in response to your request.
  • Find something your dog doesn’t like that can’t be harmful – a squirt gun. Take a known behavior like “Sit” and give the command in a normal tone of voice. If your dog doesn’t do it promptly, say the word “NO” and give about three squirts to the face, avoiding the eyes. Then walk away. Come back a few minutes later and show the dog that you have a treat and ask for the same behavior. You may have to use the treat to regenerate the behavior as you have probably convinced your dog that you aren’t crazy. Wait a bit more and ask for “sit” again. In almost all cases, the dog will sit “with a will” on the first command. In reality it’s not commands that make behaviors happen – it is the consequence of behaving correctly.

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