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Behaviourist's Corner

How To Teach Your Dog To Speak


New research has shown that dogs may understand more than humans have traditionally given them credit for. We speak to APBC-certified clinical animal behaviourist Inga MacKellar to learn it's never too late to discover the secret to successful 'dog speak'.


As you will know, getting the communication right between you and your dog is the key to developing a positive relationship. It's also essential to your dog's wellbeing because a set of successful commands will keep him safe. But learning how to speak dog takes patience and practice. We hear from Inga how being consistent with the words and hand signals you use, as well as your tone of voice, can work wonders for your dog speak.

Developing clear commands

'Our human language is incredibly complex and dogs don't necessarily understand us the way we think they do,' says Inga. 'What dogs are able to do, though, is learn to recognise a limited number of sounds and words that help them follow what we're saying. Those words, together with your tone of voice and, most especially, your body language, make them appear to magically understand what we're saying.'

Dogs also find it tricky to put different words together. For example, they might have learned what to do when they hear 'sit' or 'lie down', but hearing 'sit down' will confuse them because it combines two different instructions. 'The clearer, simpler and more distinct you can make your command words, the better,' says Inga.

The science of dog speak

Last year, scientists at York University discovered that using appropriate dog speak, and the right tone of voice, can quickly build bonds between you and your dog. Researchers tested dog-related phrases versus non-dog specific words, and a high-pitched voice versus a normal one. They discovered that the dogs were more attentive to the speakers who used the high-pitched voice and the familiar dog-related words.

In 2016, a similar study in Budapest measured brain activity in dogs when they heard familiar praise words firstly in a tone of voice that sounded like the dog was genuinely being praised, and secondly in a neutral tone of voice. The researchers found that while the dogs recognised the familiar praise words whichever way the words were said, they reacted most positively when the person used an upbeat tone of voice.

Chatting to your dog

Of course, one of the joys of dog ownership is companionship which means we all chat to our dogs, even if the conversation is a little one-sided! But could constantly chattering to your dog actually confuse him? Again, it all comes down to tone of voice, reveals Inga.

'If you're just passing the time of day, it doesn't really matter,' she says. 'But if you're trying to ask your dog to do something, or to behave in a certain way, then constant chattering can be confusing. My advice would be to develop a different tone of voice for conversational chatting to the one you might use when you're giving your dog instructions, which should always be clear and firm.'

Of course, the tricky thing about the human voice is that different tones can creep in without us realising. 'Before you speak to your dog, always think about why he's doing what he's doing, and consciously adapt your tone of voice accordingly,' suggests Inga.

Smart tips for talking dog

Finally, Inga has some useful tips on how to get the most from your day-to-day dog speak:

  • When you first get your dog, develop the habit of using verbal commands and matching hand signals. That way, if your dog's hearing fails in old age, you'll still be able to communicate effectively.
  • Choose command words that sound obviously different from each other, use them consistently and never mix them up.
  • Avoid shouting at your dog – if you've taught him a set of clear commands, there's often no need to stress your voice.
  • Dogs recognise their owner's voice so if yours sounds encouraging and enthusiastic when you call him, your dog has positive reasons to come back sd he knows you're fun to be with.
  • Don't forget body language, which is another way of talking dog. Often dog-owners attribute a dog's response to how they think their pet feels – for example, feeling guilty. However, he's actually reacting to your body language: the slightest hint of tension in your body can affect your dog's behavioural response. So, again, consider what your body could be secretly saying to your pet, and try to visibly relax.

What do you think your dog is saying to you? Share your stories on social media with #PethoodStories

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