Use Your Voice – Good for the Dog; Good for You

It’s the same every morning.

My dog Honey barks to tell me it’s breakfast time.

Except she’s wrong. It’s not breakfast time. Her stomach clock has just gone off early.

How do I tell her this and get her to stop barking? I use my “explainer” voice. I check my watch, look into Honey’s eyes, and tell her, “No, it’s not breakfast time yet. You have to wait another twenty minutes. Just twenty more minutes.”

In response, Honey sighs and puts her head down on my lap. No more barking.

Honey the golden retriever uses her voice to communicate.

I’m so glad you understand all my barks. The “I want Lamby” bark…

Honey can’t tell time. She has no idea what twenty minutes means. And yet she seems to understand. What’s going on?

I think she’s responding to the tone in my voice.

And if there’s one thing dogs and people are good at, it’s understanding voices.

The Voice Means More Than What We Say

Many years ago, I trained as a storyteller. It helped me more than any thing I’ve ever done. Why? Because it taught me how to use my voice.

In my real life, I teach home buyer education classes. And I’m very good at it. (Oooh, just writing that made my stomach flutter with nervousness. It doesn’t feel good to brag. But I’ve never gotten a negative class evaluation in 9 years. Students go out of their way to tell my boss how much they love my class. And classes sell out by word of mouth. So I’m going to own it. I’m very good at teaching adults how to buy their first homes.)

The enthusiasm in my voice tells students from the very first moment that they’re going to have fun. When I need them to pick up something that’s important to know, I lower my voice almost to a whisper. And every once in a while, especially on a hot summer night, I’ll suddenly shout to shake things up a bit.

The students could learn the information I share in other ways: visiting my home buyer’s website, reading a book, or talking to local lenders, real estate agents, attorneys, and home inspectors. But the human voice is a very effective way to distinguish between what’s useful knowledge and what’s absolutely vital.

The tone of our voices is so important that even dogs pick up on it.

Honey the golden retriever uses her voice to ask for food..

The “please share your lunch with me or I’m going to die” bark…

The Voice We Use With Our Dogs

Although we dog-crazed people act as though it isn’t true, dogs don’t understand English. At least not in all its complexity like we do.

Yes, they associate words with activities we’ve reinforced. For example, if you ask in a high squeaky voice, “Do you want a cookie?” before reaching into the cupboard for a dog biscuit enough times (about two if your dog is as food motivated as Honey), your dog will get excited when they hear that question.

Most humans intuitively know how to use their voices to communicate with our dogs. When we want to rile our dogs up for a walk or a game, we speak quickly and in a higher pitch. When we want them to calm down, we speak more slowly and in a lower pitch (“Siiiiiiiiit”).

And when we lose our heads and forget how much our voices are communicating, we make big problems. Have you ever gotten irritated by your barking dog and shouted “stop it, shut up” just to find he barks even more? Yep, me too.

Honey the golden retriever uses her voice.

The “I hope no one knows he’s with me” bark…

Living with Honey has taught me more about using my voice than any storytelling class. She’s a “soft” dog. She’s very attached to me. If I want to stop her from doing something, I can’t yell. It’s too much for her. All she needs is a gentle, “enh” to redirect her attention away from something I don’t want her to do.

The same has been true for the foster puppies and dogs who have stayed with us. We haven’t had a manic, bundle-of-energy dog that needs a stiff shout just to realize there is someone else in the room. Which means I only use my big voice when I need an immediate reaction and a little bit of shock, like when a dog is squeezing through the fence to chase the squirrel on the other side. Most of the time, a quiet “unh, unh, unh” is enough to get the attention of a soft dog.

What’s interesting to me, is how dogs do the same things with their voices when they want to talk to us.

Honey the golden retriever uses her voice.

And, of course, my “it’s time to go to bed” bark.

Dogs Use Their Voices to Talk To Us

Hungarian researchers have found that humans, listening to recordings of dogs, can tell what their barks mean. Amazingly, even people who did not live with dogs had this ability.

(If you want to see how well you’d do, check out this interactive quiz.)

Dogs don’t waste a good alarm bark just to ask for their ball. They use their voices to tell us what they want the best way we can understand.

I wonder what would happen if everyone was as consistent as dogs in using the right voice to communicate? If they used the right tone for their message instead of trying to shock or bait?

Or better yet, what if the words of talk radio DJs and cable news panelists were translated into barks? Maybe without the distractions of the words, we’d understand more of what people were trying to say. And maybe people would take more care with their voice.

After all, using our voices effectively works well with dogs. Maybe it’s a good idea for humans too.

Your Turn: Is the way your use your voice more important than your words when you’re talking to your dogs? How about when you’re talking to humans?



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  1. Torrey especially is sensitive to my tone of voice. If she starts heading after a bunny or something, If a yell sternly, NO, she heads right back. She also understands the nice voice, for treats and dinner, even if she wants to eat 20 minutes ahead of schedule.

  2. OMD!!! Once again, you have hit the proverbial nail on the head! Although I must say that I truly believe our energy — good or bad — contributes a lot to the “conversation” we’re having with a dog too.

    Ducky is so sensitive to both Sam and me that she picks up on our energy even before we do ourselves. Callie and Shadow, after years of living with us two nutcases, have learned when to ignore our outbursts of negative energy. Of course, when it’s directed at one of them for whatever reason, they tend to just look for a place to lie down that’s out of our way. Poor Ducky is still learning. She tucks her tail and runs away from us. I’ve gotten much better lately though at not yelling at her. Sam? Let’s just say he could stand to take some lessons from me. The good thing is that Ducky forgets quickly — within seconds, she’s back up in his lap trying to lick his face! And who can stay mad at a pup when she’s trying to get you to smile and laugh?!

    As for talking to humans? I know there are times when I sound angry, even when I’m not…at least not with the person I’m talking with…and most times I don’t realize it until afterwards. Usually it’s because I’m tired or not feeling well. And when I’m either, I don’t think about what I’m saying. (Some times I don’t anyway. LOL) I tend to say out loud what I’m thinking, usually without caring what others think. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve gotten myself in trouble for it, but I really don’t care. I am who and what I am — take me as I am or leave me for someone else. Which is probably why the corporate world and I were “on the outs” more often than not. (The mucky-mucks in their ivory towers hated that I refused to kiss their collective butts.)

  3. My guys definitely know when John and I are having cross words with each other 😉

    I am often amazed at how much my dogs can pick out of a conversation. Key words to be sure, but they still know what the gist is and react accordingly. That’s one of the things I love about corgis, they are great communicators in both directions, give and take.

  4. Mike Webster says:

    From the Husband:

    “. . . if the words of talk radio DJs and cable news panelists were translated into barks. . . . we’d understand more of what people were trying to say.”

    I’m not sure the DJs and the panelists would want this; it would make the silly mismatch between their content and their tone too immediately obvious. That is to say, the rest of us would quickly see how often they “waste a good alarm bark just to ask for their ball.” :)

  5. Mom does lose her temper and yell on occasion when we won’t be quiet and it doesn’t help and gives her a sore throat. She tries hard to always be calm and talk in a normal or quiet tone, but now and then she has to just yell whether it works or not!

  6. I babble incessantly at my dogs. It isn’t unusual for Poodles to have vocabularies of hundreds of words if they are exposed to language. I’m guessing that prepositions and conjunctions are not part of their vocabularies, but any word involving food or comfort they only have to hear once.

  7. This is so true, I loe what you say about some dogs not coping at all with shouty voices. My own little dog is now fairly deaf, so we’ve started to use more hand signals. He has always been incredibly good at picking up on body language and I think dogs being such as social species are very good generally at picking up mood from the way we hold ourselves.

    Dogs that suffer from anxiety are much better if you act relaxed rather than give them extra reassurance. I’m thinking in particular of dogs that are scared of storms and fireworks. The best thing we can do for them is to act unconcerned, perhaps yawn a little and give them the message that there really isn’t anything to worry about. If you give them extra reassurance, the message is that yes, they should be worried. You are acting differently, so they know that something is amiss.

    The tone of voice is so important too. When people say their dog understands when they have done something bad (eg. chewing up the Christmas presents), that look of shame, is more likely your dog reacting to your stern voice. It is unlikely, unless you really caught your dog in the act, that they would actually understand what they had done wrong!

    Great article and well said, your dogs are lucky to have such a gentle companion. It really makes me think about communication between humans too. So much of being a good communicator is about engaging your audience and speaking in short declarative sentences, rather than rambling on!

  8. Oh, yes, Rita is a sensitive one too. (Sometimes I forget she’s in the car when I have, um, words to share with other “excellent” drivers.) I have to remember to not lose my patience with her, cuz she hates it when Momma gets mad. (When Momma ain’t happy, nobody happy…)

    As for humans, yes, the tone is so important! I think that’s why email communication (and texting, etc.) can lead to misunderstandings. The tone can definitely affect what someone says and how it’s interpreted!

  9. I need to be very careful with my voice among so many dogs from varied backgrounds. I do use “eh!” a lot – it gets me attention and stops whatever is happening. VERY good post.

  10. Some words definitely are of utmost importance themselves. But generally, yes, it is the voice that matters. I mostly use either high pitch “singing” voice or calm voice. Though when Cookie wants to play, any ol’ voice means the same thing to her: “Ok, how about now?”

    Sometimes, rarely, I’ll bark when I really need to make a point quickly.

  11. When Mity starts telling us it is his dinner time (usually about 4pm – he gets fed at 6!) we tell him he is twirly. I don’t know why he then sits and grumbles to himself. Sometimes I ask him if he wants a cuddle and if that’s what he’s after – I open my arms and go to touch him, he runs away tail wagging and hides under the table until he comes out and we play the game again.

    BD has never asked for food ever, so long as he has his tennis ball he is happy.

    Not answering your question, just bragging about my boys – sorry!

    have a lovely Christmas

  12. I try to be consistent in words, tone and volume and pay close attention to the sounds my Jack Russell makes, the soft whine which means gotta go outside right NOW, the “singing growl” which means stop reading that and pet me right NOW, the warning bark that the sanitation truck is arriving to empty the dumpster (as though I hadn’t heard the massive rumbling of that huge vehicle!), the angry get-out-of-my-territory bark which he imagines can be heard outside the double-paned living room window by the invading miniature schnauzer from next door. I learned years ago from an incredible horseman that consistency of words and tone and volume are the most effective ways of interspecies communication (I’ve been a lifelong horse owner in my 7th decade of life) and if we listen carefully we learn that the consistency is delivered by the animals to us as well – our task is to try to understand!

  13. Emmett is VERY sensitive to tone – so much so that I have to moderate my voice when I’m annoyed or he cowers. Very sad. Lucas, on the other hand, is careful to pick out words he knows, regardless of tone. He’s a “head tilt” listener, and he perks his ears when he hears a word he recognizes. I try to use both tone and words when I’m training with them, although it’s easier said than done. As for people, something my mom said over and over (and over) when we were kids was, “It’s not what you say. It’s how you say it.” I think it’s often true!

  14. BJ understands tone probably more than some words. And I say some because he knows cookie no matter what tone I use. He does however respond differently to my tone. The old adage of “it’s not what you say but how you say it” works with dogs and people.