Teaching a Dog to Whisper

Training dogs to use their indoor voice
By Deborah Armstrong, October 2017

A dog can’t jump on visitors if he’s sitting. He can’t run off if he’s on a stay. Training an incompatible behavior is a reliable way to squelch the unwanted.

But what about barking? Boston could bow and bark, bounce and bark, beg and bark. He barked on a stay, he barked while running with a ball in his mouth.

Boston was my guide dog, and though he loved to serve, he also loved to vocalize while on duty. At work, I often had to run him outside for an emergency bark break.

My husband, Bob, and I first thought of teaching him to speak on command in the hope that he’d learn to only bark on cue. We’d chase him around the house while tooting loudly on a beer bottle, a game he loved that set off a cacophony of woofs. “Speak,” we’d yell, and throw a treat as soon as he vocalized. It took Boston only two sessions to learn to speak.

Now we had the irrepressible Golden barking both on and off cue … but what, I wondered, was an incompatible behavior?

The epiphany came when I realized that it need not be exactly incompatible, just suppressed. We taught Boston to whisper.

This was super-easy to shape. Each day, only a softer bark elicited a treat. In a week, we had turned the volume down by half. A month later, Boston was whispering very quietly indeed.

When Boston retired, he became Bob’s pet, and they certified together under the Therapy Dogs International program. When they visited children in classrooms, Bob demonstrated how Boston could both speak and whisper on command. (Teachers often reminded their overly loud classes that even the dog had an indoor voice.)

Years later, when we adopted Dayton, another bouncy and vocal Golden, we put “whisper” into practice right away. Though the command hasn’t eliminated Dayton’s barking altogether, after a few woofs, he often reverts to whispering softly to himself as he roams the yard and house.

Deborah Armstrong works at De Anza College in Cupertino, Calif., and coordinates surrenders for NorCal Golden Retriever Rescue.