Here’s Looking at You, Kid, in Aspen, Colorado

Recently we talked about rope, the primary and simplest tool a dog trainer needs. In this week’s blog we will explore the second essential training tool: your voice.  It’s the one thing we all use to communicate, and yet we underestimate its power and potential peril when used to train our dogs.

Since we humans are primarily verbal, we tend to use our voice to communicate with our dogs as if they were human also.  There’s an old-school tradition from the bird dog world that started in the South when people first started carrying shotguns with dogs in search of birds. It’s called “singing to the dogs.”  It amounts to a low-grade constant singing or banter as the handler follows the dogs. It’s meant to give the dogs a location point that they can return to as they quest forward in search of birds.  Today, some people duplicate that by hanging a bear bell on themselves as they walk “free range” with their dogs. Both strategies amount to a picturesque, benign wall of sound that is not meant to communicate any expectations to the dog. Instead, it simply establishes your distance from your dog and allows your dog to maintain a proper search pattern and distance from you.

The extreme opposite of singing to your dog is a practice called “hacking the dog.”  This can take the form of applying a steady stream of shouted admonishments to correct the dog and verbally attempt to control the dog’s every action and movement.  Hacking the dog is about fear and the need for control.  Over the years, I have observed dogs attempting to navigate this type of verbal barrage and it begins with the dog flinching at every utterance until eventually he tunes it out altogether like unimportant background noise.

A primary difference in the way humans connect and communicate and dogs connect and communicate is this: people use their voices and dogs use eye contact.  If you want to connect with your dog and get him to do something, you need to make eye contact. Since he might be a few yards ahead of you on the trail, you will need a verbal cue to get his attention.  Verbal doesn’t necessarily mean the use of words but it involves sound-either your voice, your whistle, or the use of a commercial whistle.  When I am handling dogs I use low volume, very short whistles at different pitches.  I start off with a high-pitched very short whistle that means, “Look at me!”  I follow up with a lower pitch sustained whistle that gives the command, “I need you to do something.”  I will sustain the sound cue until the dog makes eye contact and he is focused on me.  By this point, the dog is looking to me for an explanation of my expectation.  The softer the volume of the verbal cue, the more the dog will focus to understand and make eye contact with me.  When you want someone’s focus and attention, speak to them softly.  This technique works as well in an elementary school classroom as it does on the trail with your Free Range dog.

As a Free Range Dog handler, you may choose to use words and language rather than whistles.  In truth, I don’t know that one works better than the other. What does matter is what is in your mind at the time you make your request of your dog.  If you are truly connected with your dog, you will come to realize that he isn’t actually listening to the words you are using…he is reading your mind. Over the years I have observed people talking with their dogs.  Sometimes, it can be unpleasant and I will come away from the situation as confused as the dog must be about the human’s expectations.  The most pleasant and productive exchanges I’ve seen between people and their dogs, however, is when I don’t hear anything but I can see and feel the connection.

Learning to connect with your dog and navigate the skills required to effectively communicate your expectations so that you can safely and comfortably enjoy the Free Range Dogs lifestyle can sometimes be challenging and frustrating.  Please contact us at I am here to help you with all things dog! Sign up for an online consultation or for an in-person training.  I would love to help.