Of Course I Talk to My Dogs: And Why You Should, Too

I’m not embarrassed to say I talk to my dogs.

I don’t continually chatter at them about the weather, the neighbors, or what I need to buy at the store, but I do talk about whether it’s time to go for a walk and where we might go today. I invite Bones to bring me his favorite ball and Bashir to go find his stuffed duck. If one of my foster kittens is meowing, I’ll ask Bashir to go check it out since he’s the kitten babysitter. If someone comes to the front gate I ask both dogs, “Who’s there?” And of course I talk to them when asking them to do something for me as a part of our daily lives and during training sessions. We participate in several dog activities, including therapy dog work, and each of those activities has its own vocabulary.

Since people and dogs are both verbal creatures I think it’s only normal that we strive to communicate with each other. A part of that is gestures and motions (hand signals from us, for example, and body motions from our dogs) as well as body language. Facial expressions (both ours and our dogs) is also a big part of communication. However, I think how we each (human and canine) express ourselves verbally is a natural means of communication.

Words Said During Play

Alexandra Horowitz and Julie Hecht of the Barnard College’s Dog Cognition Lab asked dog owners to send them videos of themselves and their dogs during play. Horowitz, an associate professor who teaches psychology and animal cognition at the college, and Hecht, the lab manager, sorted through 187 videos from dog owners in 19 countries.

In the videos a variety of types of play were demonstrated and included retrieving games, tug games, wrestling, and laser pointer games. Owners included men and women from 8 to 75 years old. They found that women were more likely to pet and touch their dogs while some men didn’t touch their dog at all during play.

The list of words used by dog owners during play sessions was interesting. ‘You’ is the number one most used word by the dog owners in this study. I was surprised by that but in thinking about how I talk to my dogs I found I use it a lot, too. “Bashir, where are you?” “Bashir, are you a good dog?” “Are you being silly?” It’s not the word I would have guessed as being the number one word, but I use it a lot, too.

The second most common word is ‘good’ and that makes me happy. I was afraid ‘bad’ or ‘bad dog’ might be higher on the list but thankfully those didn’t even make the list. The next several words include it, get, go, come (c’mon), the dog’s name, girl, yeah, yah, here, I, and on.

The Dog Cognition Lab investigates the behavior and cognition of dogs and if you’d like to read more about their work, they have an informative Facebook page.



Thinking about the Words I Use

The Dog Cognition Lab’s study focused on the words people say during play with their dogs and that, of course, made me think about the words I use during play sessions. Both of my dogs like to retrieve so most of the words involve retrieving games. “Go find your ball (or toy)”, “Wait”, “Get it”, “Bring it here”, “Find it”, “Give”, and “Drop it” are the most commonly used words and phrases.

However, with this study in mind and listening to myself as I play with my dogs, I found I also tend to talk more than I thought. I encourage my dogs to find the toy, tell them to go right or left or go out farther. I cheer them on as they run back to me, and tell them thank you when they drop the ball in my hand.

With that discovery, over the next few days I paid attention to how much I talk to my dogs during the rest of our time together and thankfully discovered I’m not a chatterbox all the time. Apparently play with my dogs just brings out the cheerleader in me. Normally, I’m quieter. Whew!

Is This Important?

Studying (and thinking about) how we talk to our dogs in play is one aspect of dog ownership and certainly doesn’t encompass our entire relationship. However, just as reading this study’s results got me to thinking about how I talk to my dogs during play and then how much I talk to them at other times, it might also lead to to making some changes in how I communicate with my dogs. Do I need to be quieter during playtimes? Are my dogs even listening to me when I encourage them? (As it turns out, yes they are!) I also did some listening to myself during my walks with my dogs and during training sessions. I might find that my dogs and I communicate just fine and no changes are needed but at least I’m paying more attention and that’s good.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika, CDT, CABC

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer and Certified Animal Behavior Consultant as well as the founder and co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in northern San Diego county. Liz is also the founder of Love on a Leash therapy dogs; her dog, Bones, goes on visits on a regular basis. A prolific writer, Liz is also the author of more than 80 books. Many of her works have been nominated or won awards from a variety of organizations, including Dog Writers Association of America, San Diego Book Awards, the ASPCA, and others. Liz shares her home with three English Shepherds: Bones, Hero, and Seven, as well as one confident and bossy orange tabby cat, Kirk. To relax from work, or to take work on the road, Liz and her crew travel the West and PNW in their RV. If you see an RV on the road named "Travelin' Dogs", honk and say hi!

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