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 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.
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.
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.
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?