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(Updated 7/9/01)

Your vocal chords or.
by John Cree


IN PREVIOUS articles, I have discussed the use of food, toys and various gadgets that will help to induce a dog's interest in his owner's requirements, but quite frankly, there is nothing to beat the use of the owner's vocal cords when applied correctly.

I have also said that there are exceptions when dealing with dogs or their owners. With that sort of combination there are always going to be some that do not fit into the excepted patterns. Unfortunately there are so many people who seem to think that either they or their dogs are exceptions to the rule and that they require a very specialised approach to their particular problem. Variation is another matter. It is unlikely that two dogs or two owners should be instructed to apply the identical approach to a training routine or a problem. However, I do believe that most owners can train their dogs within the same basic principles when trying to generate their dog's attention and then, when they wish to, make use of it.

Encourage

An owner to use his vocal cords, to speak to his dog, or to make meaningful noises is the most natural way to encourage or induce his dog's co-operation. The use of body language, hands, arms and facial expressions etc is again the most natural means of accompanying the noises from the vocal cords.

When teaching a dog to respond to food, toys or gadgets it should be natural thing in training to follow up with vocal and body language as a means of praise. Instructors or behaviourists, when they display their techniques by means of food, toys or gadgets will normally follow up with verbal praise and a comforting body language. Unfortunately when these specialists teach the owners to apply titbits, gadgets or the like, most of them seem to forget to tell these owners that body language and verbal encouragement are an important factors in the art of communicating with their dogs.

I do agree that it can be very difficult to get some owners to use their voices correctly. However, it is also difficult to have many of these owners use food in the most effective way, or to apply disks or clickers with any degree of satisfaction. When attending Obedience or Working Trials training sessions or just watching dog owners exercising their dogs in the park the use of titbits is quite obvious, but not necessarily their correct application. I have yet to see or hear disks or clickers in use. I wonder why? The use of the voice is also very prominent, but in so many cases it is the incorrect use of it that is significant.

To my mind much greater effort should be put into the timing and use of voice control and with the application of other inducements to be used only when it is found to have an advantage.

The beauty of the voice is that it can be applied spontaneously under any condition and with unlimited variations. An owner is much less likely to be caught unprepared if the voice is the first choice for stopping a dog from acting in a manner that does not suit his owner. The voice should also be the first choice along with body language for encouraging a dog to continue doing something that is to the benefit of the owner.

For example, if a dog is thinking of or actually sniffing at a street lamp, a hit with the voice is the most natural way of preventing or terminating the undesirable act. Although there can be advantages with the use of a set of disks or a clicker, these advantages are outweighed by the spontaneity or variations from the use of the voice. The use of titbits would be a useful addition - but not replacement for - praise when the dog has reacted in a satisfactory manner. If the dog is going to pick up a piece of stick and the owner wants to encourage retrieving, again the voice is the most natural way of supporting and promoting his dog's action.

The use of vocal cords is the most natural approach to working with a dog, but many owners do not seem to be able to vary its application to suit the occasion. I recall one client who had a problem getting her dog's attention when out for a walk; no doubt she had the same problem at home where it would not be so apparent or so important. I gave her advice on how to use her vocal cords and I demonstrated what to do by practical application when her dog ignored her 'gentle' approach.

The husband was out with a lady and myself when I was unsuccessfully trying to get this owner to apply the appropriate deflections of voice. Her husband shouted to her, 'Why don't you speak to that dog the way you speak to me when you want something done'. He had hit the nail right on the head; there was no 'punch' in her voice to generate the attention she wanted when she spoke to the dog. As far as the dog was concerned the owner did not mean what she said.

The effect is the same with some owners in the competitive field of work. I have seen it often in training and competition, especially when the fullest of co-operation is required from the dog. Please note: As it is a different world, the pet dog owner may think it is not important to get the fullest of co-operation, but this thinking would be wrong. It is just as important within many domestic situations; such as wanting a dog to come back when called.

Commitment

With any of the AGILITY exercises, the maximum of output is required from a dog and yet there are owners who give a half-hearted instruction for the dog to jump. Little commitment from the owner results in a similar return from the dog. Back to this client and her husband situation. She knew how to generate the attention of her husband, but would not apply the same commitment to her dog. Dogs can take the sharpest and shortest of vocal blasts so long as this is immediately followed through with gentle and encouraging tones. The vocal blast is to gain attention and the follow through is to achieve the action required from the dog.

Quite recently I was involved in a situation that highlighted a typical action from a domestic dog owner. I was in the park exercising my G.S.D and she had her ball in her mouth when a young Cocker Spaniel came running up to her. Ceilidh dropped her ball to give full attention to this little whippersnapper. There was no aggravation from either dog and after they were allowed to investigate each other, I told Ceilidh to go and pick up her ball so that we could get on our way.

Returned

The little Spaniel was going to follow her when the owner called him back. After a couple of calls the dog returned to his mistress - good, no problem there. However, when the dog returned she stretched out her arm to full extension and gave the little dog a titbit but not a word of appreciation or request to stay. After taking the titbit the dog immediately turned and ran back to Ceilidh. What a waste of effort with a good little dog, but I think the readers will be able to see that mistakes were made.

It is also the timing of the owner's action along with the variation of vocal cords and body language that generates a worthy canine response. Barbara Woodhouse has been criticised by many for her approach to dog training. Whatever failings she may have had she had timing to perfection and her success with a dog was principally due to her ability to time her action.

I often feel that being self-conscious affects many an owner's approach to his dog and I have used the following expression to many a class of dog owners, 'You Do Not Have To Be Daft To Handle A Dog - But It Does Help.'

When I started with my first dog I was consciously wondering what people would think of my efforts. During the earliest days at a training club, I watched as people went on the floor to train for an individual exercise, such as recall or retrieve. I thought to myself, I can get on to the floor to do the group exercises, heelwork and stays, but I had no confidence to get up with a dog and do the individual stuff. It did not take me long to change and before I realised it I was up there concentrating on recalls and retrieves. When I get an owner to think about his dog rather than how people see him as an individual, the chances of success are on the positive side of the scales.

Demanding

At one stage I was going to say that women were worse than men at applying their voices, but so many men let the gender down by their macho approach to communicating and demanding from their dogs. Both sexes have a lot to learn.

Most canine behaviour or training problems are based on the owner's inability to apply the appropriate vocal and body language with their dogs. Titbits can be a good back up - as an 'as well as' - and there are occasions when gadgets may be of value. Only in exceptional circumstances, or for a particular reason, should gadgets be utilised to complement the full involvement of the owner.

Instructors and Behaviourists should put much more emphasis on the personal involvement of and contribution from their clients by means of body language and vocal encouragement instead of filling their heads with specialised gadgets that most of them will never be able to use properly.