Let’s Talk: The Power of a Whisper

Years ago I watched two men try to turn a panicked cow around by yelling “Turn around! Turn around!” The cow’s foot was about to slip into a gap, and she was at risk of breaking her leg. The cow, having not been trained to “turn around” on cue, tried even harder to go the wrong way. The men, panicking now themselves, continued to yell “Turn around,” but louder and louder each time, as if volume itself could propel the bovine backwards.
Ah, humans! Like the aroused apes that we can be, we often use amplitude to try to get what we want, whether it works or not. It usually doesn’t. This is as true in our interactions with dogs as with anything else. Years ago, a student at the University of Wisconsin and I recorded dog owners asking their dogs to sit by just using their voice. As we do in other contexts—like talking to a non-English speaker for example—the dog owners consistently said “sit” louder if the dog didn’t sit the first time asked.
However, volume does little to accomplish what we want. It provides no more information to the dog about what to do, and often adds stress and emotional arousal to the scenario. Getting loud is more likely to scare the intended recipient, which impairs learning and makes it even harder for your dog to do what you want.
Given that we ARE human, how do we squelch the tendency to get louder when our dog doesn’t do what we ask and we are a tad, uh, frustrated? Here’s some advice that will help, using the common cue “sit” as an example:
Choose one cue to work on at a time.
Make it easy on yourself by focusing on never repeating “sit” before trying to work on everything you say to your dog.
Resolve to say “sit” just once.
Do not repeat the cue if your dog doesn’t sit as asked, but be ready to help him put his butt on the ground. You might wait your dog out (I like to stand motionless and stare at the dog if I still have eye contact) or use a visual signal that your dog has already learned.

Be ready to reinforce your dog the instant she sits when asked the first time!
When you do repeat a cue, make a mental note of it.
Don’t get down on yourself for being human, just pay attention to it when you do it and you’ll automatically start doing it less.
Go quiet instead of loud.
Whispers actually have a tremendous amount of power when talking to your dog. They often get a dog’s attention far better than a raised voice. Teachers in elementary school know this trick, no reason not to use it on your dog!
Warning: This is hard for everyone! But if you make a conscious effort to avoid repeating yourself you’ll get better at it surprisingly fast. And if you are one of those rare dog owners who has never repeated a cue a bit louder than before, well then, that’s something to shout about!

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