THE SAVVY TRAINER | Do you speak canine, Tahoe? |

THE SAVVY TRAINER | Do you speak canine, Tahoe?

Carla Brown
Special to the Sun

As a child, I loved this song from Dr. Doolittle. I dreamed of being able to talk to my animals, in fact I still do!

I love to study dog "language" and strive to understand what they are trying to tell me. I conduct my studies daily as I watch my playgroup dogs play, hunt and sometimes get annoyed with each other.

The next time you are in a place with lots of dogs, really watch the interactions. They may bark, but it is their body language that speaks volumes. Some dogs drop and creep forward as a play gesture when another dog approaches.

Often two dogs will run straight toward each other, stop abruptly then turn their heads and avert their gaze to tell the other dog they are not a threat or one may suddenly start sniffing at the ground. Dogs growl or pull back their lips to tell another dog (or person) to back off.

“If we could talk to the animals, just imagine it Chatting to a chimp in chimpanzee Imagine talking to a tiger, chatting to a cheetah What a neat achievement that would be.”
Dr. Doolittle

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Because dogs "talk" to each other using body language, it is hard for them to understand what our words mean and what is expected of them. The words or sounds you make effect your dog. You can say "what a good girl" in a mean voice and a fearful dog will cower or "bad dog" is a sweet voice and their tail will wag! Furthermore, different types of sounds vary in their ability to get a dog's attention. Hard consonants like k, b, and d create broadband sounds that produce energy across a range of frequencies. These sounds are good at capturing attention because they stimulate more acoustic receptor neurons in the brain than soft consonants. This is why clickers work so well in training; they produce lots of broadband sounds. Think about this when naming your dog. Names like Kaya, Buster and Digger incorporate the hard consonant sounds and have two syllables which are good for recall.


Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone who didn't speak your language? It's pretty frustrating. Imagine someone saying "balloft" to you and it means five different things. Will you ever be able to figure out what this word means? It is no different for a dog who is told "down" to mean lay down on the floor and also don't jump on visitors. To make it even more confusing, after the dog has laid down on the floor, he hears "good down."

Down means put your belly on the floor and he's already done that. How does he dissect the phrase "good down?" The phrase "no bark" is another great example. First, assuming you have taught him what "bark" means, when he hears the word "bark" after "no" wouldn't he just bark?

Our poor dogs! To make their world less frustrating, we have to teach them human words in a structured way just like you would learn a foreign language. We tend to consistently pair words like "dinner" with the action of picking up the bowl or "walk" with picking up the leash and most dogs know these words well! When you start to teach your dog in a way he can learn, you will be amazed how fast he learns.

I follow the same process to teach any new cue. First you need to get the dog to do the behavior. Luring with a treat is an effective method for teaching many behaviors. Hold a treat by the dog's mouth and slowly move it until the dog achieves the desired position then immediately feed the treat. Repeat this until you can easily lure the dog into position. Only add a word or verbal cue when you can reliably lure the behavior, thus ensuring the word will be associated with the motion. After many repetitions, start to pause after giving the cue to give the dog a chance to think about what he is being asked to do. Slowly wean the dog off the treat reward, only paying him when he does an excellent version of the behavior.

This method teaches our dog human language, but strong relationships are partnerships. Maybe you should learn a little dog language, too.

Carla Brown, CPDT is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and owner of The Savvy Dog in Truckee. She can be reached at