Dogs are incredibly social animals. All you have to do is watch a couple dogs play together to notice that there is a whole conversation going on between them, purely through body language, pitch of vocalizations and their energy levels. This is dictating the type of play they are engaging in, the length of the play session, how many dogs can be involved, and how intense it is.
Humans Use Tone Too
Humans are much the same in that we communicate with way more than just our words! Ever walked into a room and felt that the atmosphere and the people in the room are telling you something bad has just happened without being specifically told that's the case? Or when you walk into a library, you immediately soften your movements and try to make as little sound as possible? We derive so much information purely through the body language and tone of voice that others are using around us.
Sit in a coffee shop and take a look at the people around you. There might be a woman waving her hands wildly around as she regales her friends of a funny or exciting story from the night before. She is speaking loudly and in a high tone of voice. Her friends are making appreciative and encouraging "yes's" or whoops as their friend carries on. They are fidgeting in their seats as they listen. All of them are buzzing and feeding off each others excitement!
On the other side of you there is a couple, bent low over the table, not saying much to each other. Their shoulders are hunched over and eyes downcast. The guy says something in a very low tone, his mouth barely moving. The girl responds in the same tone and they quietly gather their things and leave.
No-one said to each other at the start of those interactions "Hey, I am really excited so be excited with me", or "I am feeling really sad, be sad with me". Everyone synchronized to the tone of their table and conversation naturally.
Behavior is contagious! Dogs and humans alike are built to respond to emotional and behavioral stimuli of others. Whether that is at rest, play, conflict, etc.
We call this 'Synchronization'.
So how can we use this principle of synchronization in dog training?
For right now I just want to talk about tone of voice.
Body language will come later!
I use my tone of voice A LOT when training (and my body language). I find that thinking about these things when training a dog speeds up the process and helps clearly show what I am trying to teach. Tone was incredibly helpful when working with assistance dogs and their partners as often their partners only had the use of their voice to communicate with their dog.
Side note, tone does not mean volume. You do not need to shout commands at your dog.
Do dogs respond to tone of voice?
Dogs have been using the pitch of their vocalizations all of their lives to communicate with others their feelings. For example, when they are with their litter mates, and are practicing play behaviors, if one is to yelp in a high pitch they are saying "ow, mum come help me!". They are calling other dogs to them.
Try a little experiment. With your dog in a down, tell him "Stay" in a high pitch, excitable voice. Most of the time, your dog will respond to the tone and pitch of your voice and get up tail wagging, even though you have said stay. He isn't listening to the word, he is listening to the tone. The high excitable tone is getting him hyped up and that makes it harder for him to stay.
When should you use a low tone in dog training?
I like to teach clients to use low tones for what we call 'low arousal behaviors'. For example, not a lot of energy is expelled or needed by the dog to be in a down stay. So therefore I ask for a down and a stay in a low, calm tone.
Other commands I use a low tone for:
Go to bed
When should you use a high tone?
High tone is really helpful to use when a dog has to use a lot of energy to complete a command, or 'high arousal behaviors'. It gets them very excited and energized. For example, if I want my dog to come back to me across a field, I will use a really high, excitable pitch to my voice as I should "Come here". I whoop and cheer as they are running, and when they get to me I emphatically praise them with a lot of excitement.
Other commands I use a high tone for:
Don't Forget the Praise
I match the tone of my voice that I used for the command, with that of the praise too. I feel that a lot of dog owners forget that the praise is just as much an important part to think about as the command.
If I was to command a 'down stay' in a low calm tone, but then excitably praised in a high tone saying "Yay good dog!!" then they are more likely to break that stay, and get up tail wagging to synchronize with me at my energy level.
Videos on our YouTube channel are coming soon to show examples of this, so keep an eye out!