The interaction owner-dog is not limited to a few commands, like “stay” or “give me your paw”. Ask any dog trainer and they’ll tell you that they have engaged in some form of dialogue with their pets. If you are interested in learning how to actually communicate with your dog, it is time to find out how to talk to your dog and what science has to say about the practice.
Can dogs understand what we say?
There is no doubt that dogs are capable of identifying commands and individual words, one evidence of that is the fact that they are always aware of when we call their names. Before, it was believed that a dog’s understanding of human language conveyed simply to our gestures and tones. Today, however, science evaluates that their understanding goes way beyond those aspects, with some dogs being able to understand up to 200 words!
We know that they are extremely smart creatures that communicate with us through their body language and barks. However, it is not always possible to know which way is best for making our furry friends understand us.
A study conducted at the University of Lórand, in Budapest, and published by Science magazine, suggests that pets are capable of responding to a mixture of the last three mentioned factors; gestures, intonation and words.
During the research, dogs were put inside an MRI machine and exposed to a vast range of audio stimuli: their tutors and owners would say several different words into the machine, each one with several different tones of speech.
To the surprise of the scientific community, the dogs were capable of recognising the words in a vast frame of context, such as complementary, neutral or negative, depending on the intonation. And what is even more revealing: they did it using the left side of their brain, the same side that humans use for the understanding of languages and symbols.
The study means that, like us, dogs are capable of decyphering the vocabulary separately of their owner’s intonation, but also combining the two, in order to have a full grasp of what their humans are trying to communicate. Dogs are truly fascinating, aren’t they?
How to talk to your dog: The importance of intonation
The fact that dogs are capable of understanding words does not mean that intonation is not an essential factor for healthy communication, though. “Studies from the past two decades have confirmed that the higher your pitch is, the more focused your dog engages with your speech, which makes it much easier for you to train them”, says Dr Julia Sanz, veterinary researcher.
The good news is that you’re very likely to have already been doing it naturally since most pet owners often talk to their animals in a high pitched tone to invoke affection. It is also easy to see if the animals are understanding us or not, given that their response time (or lack of it) is always immediate.
According to the research presented by the University of Lórand, when addressing dogs humans should always use a tone called “derivative language to dogs”. Constructed by short and simple sentences, it is similar to the language that humans use when speaking to a child up to three years of age. However, the tone delivered should be even higher pitched than those with children which, as said previously, helps dogs to understand us better.
The volume of our speech, according to Dr Sanz, should also be a bit louder than usual. “It should be the same level as you would normally use when repeating a sentence to an adult that didn’t understand you the first time you said it”, she explains.
Since dogs understand us, can I lecture him on bad behaviour?
Yes, but don’t exaggerate: despite understanding expressions like “let’s go for a walk”, dogs aren’t able to keep up with everything we say at the same level. Despite being very intelligent creatures, it is obvious that their knowledge of a language doesn’t come remotely close to that of human beings.
For that reason, if your pet does something wrong the best way to teach your dog is not by punishing them with moral lessons or emotional blackmail. They will not understand that the right place to pee is on the hygienic paper or that you get upset when they bring dirt to your bed just because you shouted that information to them several times.
For that reason, pet owners and trainers must always understand that talking to your dog aggressively and in an elevated tone will not make them understand the message you wish to convey. On the contrary, it will simply make them anxious and fearful of you without knowing why you’re behaving that way, which can be quite detrimental to their wellbeing.
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