Assertive Voice in Dog Training

The Myth of Using An Assertive Tone of Voice in Dog Training


Posted on December 8, 2012 by Cindy

Clown on skates


What, pray tell is this image of a clown doing here with a post about dog training? Well, I like the picture but there’s more. You’ll just have to read further to find out!

I was visiting with a client’s dog this evening that I had seen on a consultation basis for fearful behavior when a family member popped in unexpectedly. I was there on a pet sitting visit to take the dog out to relieve himself and to see that he got his evening meal. The anxious pup I think had lost his appetite while he was working out in his little mind what my role and intentions were at this time of the night when no one else was around. Our previous visits had always included his primary caregiver in a training situation.

I mentioned to the family member that I was having a little trouble getting the dog to eat, even though I was trying to follow his mealtime routine as closely as possible. The young man responded to my remark by commanding the dog to eat while pointing his finger in the direction of the dog and bowl. The timid little dog promptly responded by taking a bite of his food which served to reinforce the young man’s belief that this was an effective  method to get the dog to eat.

He went on to explain to me that an “assertive” tone of voice was effective, not only with people but also with dogs. He proudly proclaimed that his “assertive” voice would be a valuable asset in his future profession of nursing. Hmm, I thought, as I pondered how that might apply.

While it is common for people to believe that they must use a firm, commanding voice with dogs, in my more than half a century of living, three and a half decades of which has been spent as a professional nurse, I had never heard that nursing required an assertive voice.

I shuddered to think how an assertive voice might make a fearful or pain-ridden patient feel. I recall my all time favorite nurse being a soft-spoken practical nurse who gave me a backrub years ago when there was still such a thing as “”

Now, I believe that a confident demeanor is important, as well as clear and effective communication, and looking back over my nursing career (that predates my dog training career) I have to admit that I have used a voice that could have come across as “assertive” on occasion to get done what I needed to get done.

I have used an assertive voice in emergencies where I needed to take control of a life-threatening situation in order to protect or save a life, and where the patient needed a little extra oomph to get moving. There was one patient I remember using an “assertive voice” with to get him to walk off of a Learjet when he was perfectly capable rather than having to be carried. Learjets do not offer a lot of room for maneuvering stretchers, at least back in the day when I was working as a flight nurse.

I lightheartedly told the young man studying to be a nurse that the only times I had found it necessary to use an assertive tone of voice was with a doctor as a patient who didn’t want to take his breathing treatment and a wildly excited patient in the emergency room who needed someone to help him snap out of his hysteria. (I didn’t think of the Learjet incident until I sat down to write this post.)

But getting back to dog training…it hasn’t been all that many years since I also believed an assertive tone of voice would get the job done with dogs as well as hysterical patients and sick doctors. I believed this because it worked!

If the dog didn’t sit when I commanded him to sit the first time, I moved further into his personal space and repeated the command in a firmer voice. Voilã! It worked every time! And, my students were impressed! They would ask, “How’d you do that?” or remark, “He listens to you better than me!” I have to admit, I knew there was a bit of magical deception in this simple trick.

But let’s just stop and think about this a minute. What was I doing? I was making the dog do what I wanted through intimidation! Yes, it got the job done, but I was getting it done through coercion, i.e. force!

What, some may ask, is wrong with that? Well, if you believe that the means justifies the end, nothing. But if you believe that cooperation and two-way communication is a better way to get the behavior you desire, if you believe that the best way to get a well trained dog is by first establishing a great relationship, then everything!

You see, what I have come to learn is that offering opportunities for reinforcement is a far more effective way to train animals than issuing orders. Orders tend to be met with resistance and the animal learns to cooperate to avoid punishment, not because he enjoys what he’s doing and the company of his trainer. Further, orders leave little room for asking questions whereas my force-free method of training encourages questions, which I believe enhance learning.

If I use cues, which are “opportunities for reinforcement” versus commands, which are orders, I can whisper and my dog will “obey” me because there is something in it for him other than aversive consequences for noncompliance. In fact, if I have taught my dog correctly he should respond quickly, appropriately and enthusiastically the first time and every time I give him a cue! It doesn’t matter if I am standing up, sitting down, lying on the floor or wearing a clown costume and roller skates!

Yes, I can make my dog do what I want by issuing commands in an “assertive” tone of voice, but I can also eliminate resistance and generate enthusiasm and reliability by teaching him to listen attentively to me for opportunities for reinforcement! Oh, and what fun we can have clowning around – on cue of course!

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LucysBlogThis article was originally posted and shared by Lucy’s Barkery