Science is finding that how dogs understand what we say has to do with it’s content as well as its tone, which of course has implications for dog training.
Recently a dog trainer friend of mine sent me a link to an interesting NPR news piece (click here) on how dogs receive and process human communications. The question these scientists sought to answer was do dogs understand actual words and phrases or are they simply reacting to our tone of voice? The short answer they came up with is that dogs process both. Who knew? Probably only just about every dog trainer since before Xenophon. But of course we’re dog trainers and we come to know things by an entirely different and much more intuitive process than scientists do. The scientist can confirm or debunk what we “know” and most interestingly, help explain why.
I came to know this same information by observing how dogs respond to the spoken word. My favorite dog of all time was an Airedale named Zachary who I adopted as a five-year-old. He had a remarkable vocabulary. I know this because he would respond coherently to sentences that he had never heard before. One time when my wife and I were dating, we were saying goodbye at the back door and Zach was standing between us. Linda said to him, “Now Zach, you take good care of Stoddard.” Zach’s response was to execute a perfect formal finish; he walked around behind me and came to sit in proper heel position on my left. Our jaws dropped and then we laughed.
That said, most untrained dogs’ default mode for understanding human communication is weighted more toward body language and tone of voice. This makes perfect sense of course because most of the ways that dogs communicate with each other are non-verbal, or if vocal, have far more to do with tone than content. Another reason for this bias toward tone and body cues is that individual people can be remarkably varied in the ways they verbally communicate the same idea to their dog. The dog’s response to that inconsistency is to ignore the content and focus on the tone.
Recognizing this becomes important when working on obedience exercises, particularly something like “drop on recall.” A dog can be thrown off if he defaults to his more innate mode of reading body language rather than listening for the words. At the same time, we can help our dog understand if we use different tonal values for the words “come” and “down.” There are some training exercises I use to teach dogs to be attentive to the sound of the words themselves and to pay less attention to the body language. I do this partly because human beings can be quite oblivious to what they are communicating to their dog with their bodies. At the same time we also work on making the humans more aware of their own body cues. In successful dog training, dogs learn our language and we have to learn theirs as best we can.