Tonal Inflections


Regardless of age, size or gender, canines communicate with each other in ways that are profoundly meaningful and effective to them.  Much of their communication is displayed through body postures, but they also communicate through a variety of tones, barks and howls.   The tonal language of the canid is staccato in nature. The word ‘staccato’ is a musical term and is defined as a series of tones being expressed in a brief, pointed manner, lacking perfect rhythm.

The tones we use with dogs originate primarily from the dog’s own tonal language.  There are five tones used, but only four actually emulate those found in the dogs’ natural communication.  
Allow me to list them.   
Command Tone

The Command Tone stands alone as the only tone that sounds NOTHING like anything found in the dog’s natural communication tones.  The Command Tone is monotone and sounds flat and emotionless.  This tone does not sound angry nor does it sound like a request.  The Command tone is distinctively flat.  The fact that the Command Tone is unique to both dogs AND people (people almost never speak in a total monotone, except some high school math teachers) greatly helps dogs discern when they are being addressed.

The Praise Tone
The Praise Tone is high and effusive and ranges from high to low.  This tone starts out on a higher note and rapidly falls to a lower one as if you were effusively saying “What a great job!” or “That was a great game!” Dogs respond readily and naturally to the Praise tone.  It bears mentioning that praise, in and of itself, is not a reward.  I often hear that some dogs want only praise.  Agree or not, praise is a motivator, it is not the reward.  Clarity and understanding are the reward.  But this is another article unto itself.

The Correction Tone

The Correction Tone sounds very similar to the warning growl given when one dog warns another.  For example, imagine a younger dog approaching an elder dog’s food.  The low, guttural tone emitted by the older dog is effective in warning the subordinate off the approach.  To a Purely Positive trainer, this might be called “negative reinforcement”, but to the younger dog, it’s
just called “effective”.  We can create a Correction Tone by dropping our voice an octave or two while allowing a back-gravel to resonate in our throat.

The Enticement Tone

The Enticement Tone goes from low to high and it sounds like a question. “Where is it?”  Or “Where did he go?”  The dog will instinctively perk up the ears, perhaps tilt the head, and display a naturally inquisitive response.  This tone is used most often in search work, but has the same effect on dogs simply looking for their ball.  Between the dogs’ natural response to the tones and the conditioned response to try harder to find whatever it is we sent him to find, the Enticement Tone is very effective in search work.

The Battle Tone

Dogs produce the Battle Tone when they are engaged or about to engage in a fight.  It is an audible, inhaling/exhaling hissing sound that is usually accompanied by facial displays such as the bearing of teeth.

In our patrol dog training, we use this tone to prepare the dog for battle with a human.  A patrol dog is taught from the earliest days (by careful design) that he will probably never lose a fight with a human.  This builds his confidence to an essential degree considering what we will eventually be requiring him to do.  By using the Battle Tone when dogs are about to engage a subject (decoy or civil) in conjunction with appropriate body postures, we can elevate the dogs inclination to do battle.  
When communicating with your dog via the Command Tone and the Correction tone, make sure you emphasize the consonants and not the vowels.  For example, “Sit” would sound like “SSiTTT”, very crisp and clipped, versus “Siiiiiit?” which is mostly “I” and sounds like a pleading request.  This is another example of the staccato nature of the canine language and employing it makes a huge difference to the dog.

The art of canine communication extends well beyond the use of the Tones alone, but as trainers, handlers, and lovers of dogs becoming fluent in their language goes far in reducing confusion and facilitating clearer and faster learning.  By caring enough to learn what is significant to your dog and by applying the correct tones at the appropriate times, you’ll see your dogs respond with more clarity than ever before.

Copyright © 2003 Behesha H. Grist
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