Over thousands of years, humans and dogs have lived side by side—and our genomes have even evolved together. Humans have also altered the appearance and behavior of domestic dogs the world over. Our innate ability to communicate with dogs is one of the primary reasons our epic canine-human love affair has gone on so long.
But even though dog-human interspecies understanding is high, our communication can easily become confused. Taking the time to figure out effective strategies for getting your point across to your dog can make all the difference in preventing frustration for you both.
Whether your best friend is a working dog or a companion animal, take a look at our guide to increasing your verbal, physical and on-leash communication skills with your dog. These tips are compiled from my years of experience as a trainer working with many different dogs, including my own rescue dogs and dogs in shelters. However, all dogs are different, and individual quirks and history can affect their preferences.
Communicating with dogs through voice
Dogs may not be capable of speaking, but they are capable of understanding what you say. According to canine behaviorist Dr. Stanley Coren, a dog is able to learn around 165 words—even more with intensive training. And it’s not just the words they’re picking up on but also the tone in which you say them.
A recent study by researchers at the University of Lyon and St. Etienne found that puppies respond better to the recorded voices of women that used a higher pitch. Adult dogs, too, turned toward the recordings of high-pitched voices, but it didn’t hold their interest for long, possibly due to the fact that the actual person was not in the room interacting with the dogs.
In my experience as a professional dog trainer and dog training instructor, “sweet” sounding, high-pitched or excited tones are always more effective at getting a dog’s attention, no matter the age of the speaker, rather than low, booming, or quiet voices.
“You want to sound like a six-year-old girl at Disneyland,” I tell students.
“You want to sound like a six-year-old girl at Disneyland,” I tell students first learning to motivate their dogs to come to them in a recall. The reality is, when you’re trying to get your dog’s attention in a highly distracting or frightening environment, your voice has to compete with the cacophony of noise and activity around you.
The best way to cut through the din? High-pitched or unusual sounds, including kissy-noises or whistles.
What about raising my voice?
A raised voice or yelling at your dog is also a means of communication, but not one that is likely to get your point across well. If you’re upset with your dog’s behavior, yelling at them or telling them “No!” may interrupt what they’re doing but is unlikely to change that behavior for the better.
My dog can hear that I’m upset when I yell but they may not know what they did to upset me, especially if I yell at them because I’ve found evidence of naughtiness (like a munched-up shoe or an accident) but didn’t witness their act of destruction.
Because we use it in such a variety of contexts, the word “No!” doesn’t give my dog the information he needs to change his behavior.
Because we use it in such a variety of contexts, the word “No!” doesn’t give my dog the information he needs to change his behavior; often it doesn’t even tell him what he did wrong!
Alternatives to “No!”
Effective communication requires not that I tell my dog that they did something wrong but that I tell them what alternative behavior I would prefer. Instead of telling your dog “No!” or yelling at them, your basic training cues can inform your dog which behaviors are desirable and which are undesirable.
Instead of “no!” try:
- “Leave it!”
For example, when your dog jumps up on you to say “hello,” say “Sit!” This only ever means one thing—put your butt on the ground. So in this case, you’re letting your dog know you don’t like the jumping, and sitting would solve the problem.
If your dog is nosing around too close to the pizza on your plate, say “Leave It!” This only ever has one meaning—move away from that desirable object. It informs your dog how to change their behavior from something you don’t like, to something you do.
Communication through body language
Since dogs aren’t capable of speech, their primary form of communication is through their bodies. Ears, tail, mouth, eyes and the carriage of the body all have something to say about your dog’s emotional state.
Our bodies, too, can effectively communicate concepts to our dogs that can become lost in translation when spoken. In fact, most trainers first teach many basic cues, including “sit” and “down”, using a hand signal instead of a verbal cue.
The trouble with communicating via body language is that your dog’s body and your body have completely different lived experiences. Since you (probably) don’t have a tail, identifying the difference between positive, negative and somewhere-in-between emotions in the position of your dog’s tail can be a challenge.
Canine body language encyclopedias, like Brenda Aloff’s photographic guide Canine Body Language, can help you to better learn your dog’s native tongue. Or check out our guide to identifying an anxious dog through their body language.
Communication through the leash
The leash may be one of the most powerful tools of dog-human communication. Dogs are masters of reading our emotions and the leash is like a direct conduit between our brains and bodies and theirs.
If you’re tense or under stress, you’ll likely tighten up on your leash (shortening the distance between your hand and your dog). If you’re feeling carefree, you’ll likely hold the leash more loosely. If you’re in a rush, you may tug the leash more frequently when your dog stops to sniff; if you have time for a leisurely walk, your pace might slow.
Because you’re are constantly communicating to your dog via speed, pattern of movement and tension (among other things) while on a walk, their response to situations and environments (i.e., the park vs. a busy sidewalk) is, in part, dictated by yours.
Confidence and reassurance in your body language and leash handling when approaching a noise construction site or barking dogs behind a fence helps your dog to, in turn, feel more confident and reassured in potentially scary situations.
More on leash safety and communication
The leash is so sensitive that it’s plenty powerful without the use of other devices.
The leash is so sensitive that it’s plenty powerful without the use of devices such as choke collars, prong collars, and shock collars. In fact, equipment that causes pain is more likely to confuse your communication with your dog.
A prong collar, for example, has hard metal dowels that are pushed into my dog’s neck if they pull on the leash. If I have a dog that gets excited when they see other dogs and pulls even just a little on that leash, they will feel the discomfort of metal tightening over their trachea.
My dog doesn’t understand that I’m the one holding the leash and causing the discomfort—all he knows is that he sees another dog and he feels pain. In an effort to prevent that pain from occurring, over time my dog may begin to bark, lunge and avoid other dogs while on leash.
This breakdown in communication leads my dog to a completely different conclusion than I intended—all I wanted was to teach them not to pull on leash when excited, but now I’ve shaped my dog to feel a negative emotional response to others.
The best way to use a leash is as a safety device, not as a means of correction. Your dog will better understand what you have to communicate on leash if you remain calm and confident and use your voice and body language, not an intimidating collar, to get your point across.
The bottom line
You love your dog, and your dog loves you. You’re both constantly looking to each other for cues, which makes it even easier to be intentional about your communication with your pet.
Show your dog how you want them to behave in the language they understand, and you’ll be amazed by the results.