Almost all of us have seen one of those humorous videos where dogs appear to be talking. The whining and howling on screen may give us a laugh, but in real life, a noisy dog is rarely entertaining. Vocalization occurs for a variety of reasons. It may be a response to stress (good and bad), an acknowledgment of correction, or an indication of anticipation, drive, or excitement.
While it is important to understand the reasons behind vocalization, it is even more important to respond appropriately. And most often, regardless of the cause of the vocalization, the appropriate response is to NOT RESPOND—at least not with your voice.
For example, a dog’s growling and whining may be the result of anxiety or aggression. Too often, owners respond by petting the dog and repeating the words, “It’s OK. You’re OK.” No. It’s not OK. When you vocally reassure a frightened dog, you are reinforcing his belief that there is reason to be afraid. When you try to vocally calm an aggressive dog, you are rewarding the aggressive response. If you yell at a barking dog, whether he is barking from excitement or aggression, you are joining in the barking. In all cases, your vocalization sends the message that the dog’s vocalization is appropriate to the situation.
You should praise or touch your dog only when he is calm. Do not speak, yell, or verbally soothe him when he is worried, upset, or overexcited.
- If he is fearful, the best way to reassure him that all is well is to continue working. If you behave as if all is well, he will more quickly believe that all is well.
- If he is aggressive, correct him; then put him into a down/stay and do not speak to him until he is calm. If necessary, stand on his leash so that he cannot break the down.
- If he is overexcited, do not yell or verbally acknowledge his excitement. Stop all forward motion and put him in a down/stay until he calms.
Too much of a good thing
People contribute to their dogs’ vocalization in all sorts of ways. The classic, of course, is asking the dog if he wants to go out. We know the dog will want to go out, we don’t really need to ask the question, but we do. And in doing so we “start a conversation.” You vocalized, so your dog–in anticipation of a fun outing–vocalizes back. After all, he doesn’t want to be rude! Once he begins thinking that his communications should be vocal, he won’t even need you to speak. He will pick up on your signals, such as getting your coat or grabbing your keys, and begin “telling” you–by barking and wining–that he wants to go with you.
Similarly, in obedience training, dogs learn to anticipate a reward and vocalize that anticipation. Too much verbal praise and encouragement during training can result in a vocal response from your dog. So instead of executing a calm, quiet sit/stay, your dog will execute a sit/stay/whine until he is released and rewarded.
Drive and excitement are good and we want our dogs to be energetic and happy when training. We often use our voices to boost their attention, engagement, and energy. However, if we get our dogs so excited, or build up so much anticipation that they cannot contain their vocalization, we have created a problem. Some breeds and some dogs tend to be more vocal than others. If we are training a “vocal” dog, we need to adjust our training methods to ensure we are not encouraging vocalization. Every time you talk to your dog, you reinforce the idea that your preferred method of communication is vocal.
Do’s and Don’ts When Dealing with a Vocal Dog
- DON’T SPEAK. When dealing with any vocalization DO NOT SPEAK unless you are giving a command like sit. You have already started this “conversation,” so your dog will continue to speak back. This is true for inside your house and during training. Dogs read body language anyway so if you are constantly talking it is disruptive to his train of thought and leads to excitement.
- DON’T VOCALIZE TO RELEASE YOUR OWN STRESS. Often, when we make a mistake or our dog is misbehaving, we release our own stress by talking about it. “Ooops I confused you. Sorry about that let’s try again.” These words may help you, but they don’t help your dog. Similarly, don’t yell in aggravation. Your dog doesn’t understand your words; he only understands that you are making noise. All he “hears” is that making noise is an acceptable release for stress or aggravation.
- DO USE CALM TOUCH. Reward your dog with a quiet calm touch rather than with your voice. Remember to wait until he is quiet, then you can pet him quietly.
- DON’T MOVE FORWARD. If your dog is excited and vocal and trying to get somewhere, stop and stand still. Make no movement toward anything until he is quiet. Make him realize quiet and controlled gets what he wants. Completely ignore your dog and correct him until he settles down.
- DON’T REWARD UNTIL HE IS QUIET. If your dog is in high drive or too excited, do not reward until he is quiet. Some dogs need the reward separated from the training exercise completely. Place your dog in a down/stay, step away and give him a chance to settle down before returning to him and beginning where you left off.
- DON’T CORRECT FOR CORRECTION ACKNOWLEDGEMENT. Correcting a brief sound after correction just creates more vocalization. If your dog vocalizes once on the correction but stops the behavior, just hold and wait for quiet before moving forward. If you have taught a quiet command you can use that and correct. Otherwise, just wait it out.
- DO USE BODY LANGUAGE AND HAND SIGNALS. The less you use your voice, the better. Around the house and in training sessions, use your body language and hand signals. You will find your dog being very in tune to you then.
- DO PRACTICE VOCALIZATION TRIGGERS. You know why and when your dog tends to be vocal and overexcited. Whether he is moving forward, going out the door, getting out of the car, or coming on command, you should only give that command once he is absolutely quiet. Initially that may only be one second; over time you can build it up to 3-5 seconds. You should practice these triggers as much, if not more, than your actual obedience commands. For example, instead of practicing heel, practice getting in and out of the car in silence (on both your parts.)
- DO USE THE DOWN/STAY. If you can’t settle your dog down, place him in a down/stay, move away and do not return to him until he is quiet.
Overcoming vocalization takes a lot of practice and is time consuming. You may have to take your dog in and out of the car multiple times before you get to go anywhere. But every time you allow him to move forward noisily, or get out of car while whining, or run barking to grandma to get the treats, you are putting yourselves back to square one. In the beginning, your dog may vocalize when you give a command; if you can avoid commands and just use hand signals then do that. If he vocalizes once briefly on release, allow that to pass without comment. That vocalization is a release from the stress of him being quiet, so correcting for that will create more vocalization. But if he continues after the initial vocalization post release, stop, down/stay, move away and return when he is quiet.
As with all undesirable behaviors, vocalization will only diminish when your dog realizes that you don’t want it and that it does not get him what he wants. And, as with most training issues, the change in your dog’s behavior starts with a change in yours!