Despite common misconceptions, dogs do not understand English. The way a dog learns, and consequently behaves, is by association. This means that their brains connect certain sounds (not words) to certain behaviours, activities, people, and objects.
For example, the sound ‘sit’ means that their two-legged friend wishes them to fold their rear legs underneath themselves; the sound ‘dinner’ means their two-legged friend might be going to bring some food out shortly; the word ‘ball’ means their favourite round thing is going to be launched across the park.
Below is a crash course in dog communication: remember that this sort of thing can take years to master, so if you’re having difficulties with your dog understanding you, why not book one of our group obedience classes?
Keep It Short & Simple
When we speak in sentences, dogs hear a jumble of sounds with no meaning. Over their lifetime some dogs build up an extraordinary vocabulary of sounds, but as soon as you string these sounds together, your pup will simply tune out. To them we are speaking a foreign language and they have no way to decode the message.
It’s not just sentences that have the potential to complicate things: even telling your dog to ‘sit down’ instead of ‘sit’ qualifies as a different sound, and is more likely to confuse them. For this reason, when training our dogs it is best to assign commands which are a single syllable wherever possible. This leads to the least amount of confusion and your dog has the best chance at being successful.
No Need To Repeat
You must remember that ‘sit – sit – sit – sit’ is a completely different sound to ‘sit’. Repeating the communication will only confuse your dog more – your dog has mobile ears with 3x as many ear muscles as a human – they heard you the first time. Repeating a command isn’t necessary and it certainly won’t help you to communicate with your dog.
You do not need to shout and gesticulate wildly to be understood by your dog. Your dog can pick up extremely subtle changes in your posture, tone, and signals. Simply changing your pitch of voice can have an effect on the message that your dog receives. High pitched sounds tend to signify excitement, and can be used to communicate happiness with the dog, or to liven a dog up during training. However, for the most part, commands should be issued using a clear, distinct, medium tone of voice to keep the dog relaxed and focused. A lower than normal tone of voice (similar in pitch to a growl) can be used to issue a verbal correction.
Consistency Is Key
It is crucial that we are consistent with the words that we use with our dogs. This consistency will enable the dog to form a stronger association between the sound and the desired behaviour, activity, person or object. If one day you say ‘come’ and the next day you say ‘here’ then your dog is essentially having to learn two different sounds that both relate to the same action, and he is only practising each one half as often.
If you follow these few tips, be assured that you are giving your dog the best chance of understanding of your wishes. If your dog has learnt what a particular command signifies but chooses not to comply, then you may need to work on motivating your dog, building your leadership, or possibly desensitising your dog to particular distractions. In this case, you may benefit from our private in-home dog training.