We have all been there, our dog running off after some stimulant like a deer or a cat, and our instincts tell us to recall our dog as strictly as we possibly can. We know it’s too close to the road or it’s not safe, so our anxiety and fear along with the anger of the bad behaviour is easily projected in our voices. When we shout “FIDO GET BACK HERE NOW!!!” to a dog that is high on prey drive and in the middle of predatory, hunting behaviour, this will most likely be interpreted as “FIDO GO AND CATCH THAT RABBIT AND KILL IT!!”
Our dogs are constantly receiving signals from us and it is very easy to communicate the wrong message by using the wrong tone of voice. When dogs get on a scent, or if they are prone to aggression to dogs, and they encounter the dog/cat/football/chicken or whatever, their adrenaline kicks in and blood gets pumped around the body to the organs for a burst of energy to allow for a quick attack, the heart beats faster, the breathing increases and the pupils dilate. The dog is primed and ready to charge. All the predatory instincts that lie within the dog come alive. At that precise moment, if your dog hears you scream at the top of your voice it will think that you are enticing the attack. I think we can all remember the video that went viral of Fenton chasing the deer in Richmond Park. The owner was hollering at the top of his voice to recall his dog, sounding angrier and angrier by the second, he even starting joining in the chase. All Fenton could interpret was an angry owner. In Fenton’s mind, and because our dogs look to us for guidance and instruction, that anger is projected at the deer, and bingo, there you have it, Fenton does exactly what his owner asked him to do, chase the deer.
Incidentally, dogs cannot understand a string of words lumped together, dogs can understand 1, at best 2 words in a row, which is why speaking in sentences to a dog during training is a waste of time.
It is so important that we project the correct signals to our dogs as they are reading us all the time. The slightest tension in our voices can be interpreted into something completely removed from the original message. For those situations where the dog is contemplating a chase, there is a split second where it will either charge or retreat, and the owner would have much better chances if they recalled in a softer tone of voice. If your dog is prone to these sorts of behaviours, have a think about what you project in that final moment. Does your dog REALLY understand what you want? Do you sound as though you are joining in the hunt? For dogs that have aggression towards other dogs this can be extremely relevant. Dogs that are already tense are just a moment away from exploding and the members of the pack can easily trigger a bad reaction. If we sound happy, our dogs will think there is nothing wrong, if we sound tense and aggressive, our dogs will think there is a problem.
So what to do when the rabbit or deer appears and your dog decides to chase after it? All dogs are different, but if your dog has a history of not listening, try changing the tone of your voice. Sounding gruff and furious is unlikely to work. Simply calling “here” can be quite effective in getting the dogs attention without setting it off. And remember, the more you say, the less your dog will listen. The less you say, the more it will listen. Make your voice have value by using it sparingly.