People who yell at their dogs are very likely to end up with dogs that don’t listen

Who’s a good boy?
Who’s a good boy?
Image: AP Photo/Richard Vogel
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If you can’t get your dog to behave, it may be your tone of voice that’s to blame.

Dogs follow our directions more quickly when we seem happy or neutral, Ross Flom, a psychologist from Brigham Young University, and one of his graduate students, concluded from a recent set of experiments. Their work was published (paywall) in Animal Cognition last year.

Previous research has shown that dogs are capable of picking up on our vocal tones and facial expression, possibly as a way of interpreting our emotions. Flom and his graduate student wanted to see if our emotions affect the way a dog responds to us.

To test this theory, Flom and his student recruited 45 dogs of various breeds (with permission from their owners) from local pet stores and veterinary offices. In a room, one experimenter sat facing the dog with two bowls on either side of him or her, with its contents covered. One bowl had a treat, the the other did not. A second experimenter held the dog back, and released it after the first pointed excitedly, neutrally, or negatively at the different bowls.

Regardless of whether there was a treat in the bowl, the dog was more likely to approach the bowl the first experimenter pointed to. However, when the experimenter appeared angry or disapproving as it pointed to the bowl, the dog was more likely to take a longer time to approach it.

Practically, this work implies that when training your dog, his or her response time could be related to your tone of voice. A peppy or neutral tone generates a quicker reaction. A more negative tone could produce a delay in response.

“Dogs are sensitive to various human social communicative behaviors,” Flom and his co-author write. Although dogs respond best to physical commands, like pointing, our affect may contribute to how they act on these cues.