Q: When I talk to my dog, Charlie, he usually cocks his head, as if he is really listening and understanding what I’m telling him. Do dogs know words, or is he just listening to the tone of my voice?
A: Dogs read your voice tone more than the actual words to gauge if you’re delivering praise or discipline. Try this test with Charlie. Stiffen your muscles, grab a telephone book, and begin to call out the names alphabetically in a stern, low tone in front of him. Watch his response. I bet he will glance your way, crouch down, and move away from you, almost as if to say, “I can tell you’re angry but I’m not sure why.”
Now repeat the exercise, but this time, relax your muscles, sit on the floor, and call out the names in the phone book in a cheery, musical tone. Watch what Charlie does. He will probably race over to you with a circular wag and a happy, open-mouth grin and try to give you kisses.
The same words spoken in a different tone elicit different reactions from your dog. Although tone matters more, many dogs do understand specific words and phrases. That’s because we have been consistent when speaking these words followed by a particular action. Chipper licks her muzzle whenever I say to her, “Want to eat?” because she knows a goodie is coming. At night, when I say, “Find your spot!” Chipper races upstairs and flops on her bed in my bedroom. Her motivation? She receives a tasty nighttime snack each time she complies.
For more fun and useful information on dog behavior, purchase The Dog Behavior Answer Book from Your Dog.