Our dogs want to please us. If we can communicate what we want clearly to them, they will almost always do it. Most trainers think that dogs understand tone of voice, body language and eye contact, so we need to learn to use these tools effectively to talk to our dogs in a way they can understand.

Tone of Voice

Dogs are thought to understand three tones of voice:

High-pitched, excitable tones. These can be used to motivate your dog to come or heel and to praise for a job well done.
Matter-of-fact tones. These are excellent for giving commands–they are calm and direct.
Lowered tones which would simulate a growl from mom. These mean “stop it now.”

Body Language

Body language can also communicate volumes to a dog. We are so much taller than they are that we can be intimidating without meaning to be. We need to be aware of that and make accommodation for dogs that are timid. How quickly you move and how you approach a dog are crucial. Approaching at a reasonable pace or encouraging the dog to come to you, allowing the dog to sniff and get comfortable with you before trying to pet him, squatting down to his level, talking to him in a friendly tone of voice, offering him a treat or toy are all ways to increase the dogs’s comfort level. Some dogs must get to know you on their own timetable, and the more you try to force yourself on them, the longer that timetable will be. Do not try to console your dog when he shows fear because this will send the message that it is okay to be afraid. Instead, if you adopt a positive attitude about the fearful circumstance by laughing and talking in cheerful happy tones, your dog is more likely to pick up on your mood.

Eye contact

Use eye contact with your dog like you do with humans to emphasize your words. Looking directly into your dog’s eyes with love says one thing. Looking directly into your dog’s eyes with intensity after he has just disobeyed you says something completely different. We know the difference, and they know the difference. Use it to your advantage.

If your dog won’t look at you, you might try developing eye contact with the “watch me” game. Command your dog to “watch me” and simultaneously raise a treat to the bridge of your nose. The instant he looks at you, praise and give him the treat. Doing this regularly will teach him to look at you on command.


Dogs and puppies do not understand being hit. While it may be a natural impulse to bop your dog when he is acting in a way you don’t like, it is really counterproductive. It will confuse him, cause him to mistrust you, and can actually reinforce bad behavior. Many trainers believe that a dog would rather be yelled at than ignored. They compellingly argue that, just like a child, a dog who is not getting enough positive attention will misbehave to get negative attention. If you ignore the bad behavior (to the extent you can without endangering the dog or others), your dog will look for other ways to behave which will get your attention. If you reward the desired behavior and ignore the undesired behavior, sooner or later (it doesn’t happen overnight) you will get only the desired behavior.