"How Dulcet Tones Make Your Dog More Willing to Listen."

It’s Our Tone of Voice That Speaks to Dogs.

Originally published in slightly different form on February 16, 2010 at PsychologyToday.com.

I’ve written numerous times here that it’s possible to change your dog’s behavior simply by praising him or her, even while the dog is doing something you don’t want her to. How and why does this happen?

An interesting new study, found in the open-access journal PLoS ONE, finds that the more activity a person has in the prosody-producing areas of the brain when speaking to others, the higher they score on standard tests of empathy. (Prosody involves the rhythmic and musical aspects of speech.)

“So increased empathic ability,” said authors Lisa Aziz-Zadeh and Tong Sheng of USC, and Anahita Gheytanchi of the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology,” is linked to the ability to perceive prosody as well as [to] activity in these motor regions.”

“Prosody is one of the main ways that we communicate with each other,” Aziz-Zadeh said. “In some cases, humans can’t do without it, as in the case of a stroke victim who garbles words but can express emotion. Or when talking to a pet: If you have a pet, they basically are understanding your prosody.”

This way of using the voice is similar to “motherese,” the way mothers from many different cultures talk to their children using rhythmic and musical vocal intonations. Culturally speaking, it’s one of the ways most human babies are introduced to the use of language as a means of communicating emotion. The more music and emotion we put in our voices, the more babies respond.

Azis goes on to say, “It is not clear whether empathy brings about prosodic activity or whether frequent use of prosody can somehow help [us] to develop empathy.”

What we do know is that dogs are emotional creatures who have an innate need to feel connected to us. So one of the most important tools we have, in terms of nurturing that need, is the way we use our voice when communicating our wishes and desires. Something as simple as the proper tone of voice can automatically stimulate an emotional connection, which makes our dogs more willing to listen and obey.

However, not everyone knows how to find their “empathy” voice when talking to their dogs. This article will, hopefully, help.

My personal understanding of this idea goes back nearly 20 years ago when I was working with a beautiful blue great Dane named Achille (Ah-sheel). Achille was nervous about meeting people on the streets. He was a strikingly beautiful dog, so it wasn’t uncommon for people to stop and stare and want to coo over him. Achille didn’t like this, and would bark nervously: “Ruff, ruff! Stay away!”

One of my jobs was to fix this problem. So on each of our training walks, I took along a pocketful of treats, so that every time someone commented on how handsome Achille was, etc., I could thank them then stop to explain what I was trying to do to help him, and ask if they would mind showing the dog a treat and then telling him to sit.

Most people said yes. But once I’d given them the treat, a funny thing happened. Quite a few people were very stern about how they gave the sit command. This had the opposite effect to what I was after: almost invariably Achille would bark back at them. Some, though, gave the command in a very pleasant tone of voice. And when they used a different tone, Achille always sat quite quickly and was very happy to do so.

After I noticed this, I decided to change tactics: once the person agreed to help out, instead of asking them to “tell” Achille to sit, I always phrased it as follows: “Could you show him a treat and then ask him to sit?” This almost always changed the tone of voice they used when giving the command, creating it a sweeter, less stern feeling for the dog. As a result, Achille quickly learned not to be afraid of strangers.

I was in a somewhat similar situation a few months back, at least in terms of trying to explain how to use your voice when trying to get a dog to conform to your wishes. A woman who lives down the hall from me recently adopted a young Lab/pit bull mix named Diva, and I ran into them one day at the dog run.

At one point Diva was showing an avid interest in the far corner of the run where the garbage bags, etc., are stored in a large industrial-plastic type container, which sits pushed up against the fence. Diva was fascinated with it, smelling all around the container, even pushing her body between it and the fence. (My feeling was that it was a probably popular spot for the rats to hang out at night.)

Diva’s owner was saying, “No, stop that,” and trying to pull her away from those fascinating smells. I suggested that we just walk the other direction instead. She agreed to give it a try. Then, once we were a good distance away, Diva was torn between following us and continuing with what her nose was telling her to do. To overcome this final bit of resistance, I told Diva’s new mommy to praise her.

She did, but her voice was flat and held no excitement or emotion. Then, to demonstrate, I praised Diva, using a high, silly voice. The dog got a happy look in her eyes and immediately came running toward me as if I were the most interesting thing in the world at that moment. After Diva’s owner heard the difference in the way she and I were using our voices, she was able to imitate the way I’d praised her dog. So when Diva became distracted again a little later, she used that same happy tone of voice and it had the same effect on her dog.

Since this isn’t something that can be explained as easily or completely in print as it is is with spoken examples, I’ve recorded a few samples of the right and wrong ways to use your voice in training.


“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”

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Aziz-Zadeh is assistant professor of occupational sciences with a joint appointment in the Brain and Creativity Institute of the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Sheng is a USC doctoral student in the Brain and Creativity Institute. Gheytanchi is a postdoctoral researcher at the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology.

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© 2016 by Lee Charles Kelley.