When I hired a trainer to help our puppy improve her manners, learn to drop pilfered dental floss out of her mouth on command, and stop dragging my children behind her on walks, I had not realized that I was signing up for lessons, as well.
With his fanny pack brimming with treats, Peter, the red-bearded canine expert, arrived at our home, explained his goals, and then waited for me to mimic his technique. As I was holding our distracted dog’s leash and trying to keep her contained in an imaginary box next to my left foot, Peter nodded at me, and I uttered the command, “Let’s go.” Instead of moving forward, the puppy affectionately sat on top of my feet, licked my knees, and then tried to catch a moth fluttering by.
“Why are you addressing her in a praise voice and not a command voice if you want her to do something?” Peter inquired.
I don’t think that the dog trainer could imagine that his innocent question would set my mind spinning with questions about the type of voice I use when speaking—not just to my dog. In our trainer’s methodology, the command voice is assertive and definitive rather than loud or frightening. “Come, sit, stay, down, off,” are clearly articulated in a cadence which is not aggressive, yet forceful. The praise voice is excited and peppy. “Good doggie!” we coo enthusiastically. A corrective voice conveys a clear “no” with just a hint of a growling tone reminiscent of the puppy’s own mother communicating her disapproval. The trainer also discourages using the puppy’s name after saying “no,” so the puppy won’t feel connected to the negative behavior.
At that moment, standing outside my home in the 90 degree heat, grasping my puppy’s pink leash, I experienced a flash of insight. All of those bar and bat mitzvah students who had not practiced their assigned verses of Torah as per my instructions; my sons’ unmade beds; a workman’s delay in finishing a task after my personal entreaty to him; and even the puppy’s flouting my requests made sense. Why was I giving commands in a praise voice?
I could blame my Southern upbringing and a culture of “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar” mindset for my sugary speech patterns. Or maybe I’m not comfortable with my “command voice” because of my birth-order status as a middle child. Not that I believe in astrology, but I was born under the sign of Libra, so maybe that explains my preference for harmony rather than the stern dispensing of orders. It’s just not my nature to speak in the command tone when interacting with students, kids, or my furry pet.
I wanted to explain to Peter the Dog Trainer that I wasn’t inept at teaching my dog a basic skill. I’m just not inherently a bossy person. Why bark when a gentler tone might work just as well? If I could just surround my pet with enough love and support, why wouldn’t she want to follow my well-intentioned suggestions of retreating from the dead mouse on the sidewalk or extending a friendly paw?
Of course training puppies is not equivalent to encouraging a young person to complete a homework assignment, or instruct a child to place a dirty dish in the kitchen sink, or not run across a busy street. Yet, the concept of being mindful of the type of voices we utilize when communicating was so powerful for me and related to many areas of my life.
The Bible demonstrates that even God modifies the divine voice for different purposes. In Psalm 29, God summons a command voice—shattering Lebanese cedars, kindling flames of fire, and even triggering deer to go into labor. But in the Book of Kings, God takes on a “still, small voice.” There’s no shortage of instances of the Divine’s correction voice in the works of the Prophets, as God chides the Israelites for their wrongdoing.
It’s been two weeks since my dog training epiphany, and my shoe-chewing puppy still jumps eagerly on guests entering our front door. Perfect behavior has not yet been achieved. The most successful part of the dog training, however, may have been my exercise in increasing self-knowledge.
When I ask my children to pick up a dirty towel from the floor, I can say that I’m “not using my praise voice,” and the kids laugh and pick up the towel. When I tutored a student last week, I consciously altered the tone of my voice when assigning the homework. Maybe the student had extra time for studying, but at the next lesson the verses were free of errors and beautifully chanted.
Hundreds of years ago, the Jewish mystics understood that a person’s mouth reveals that soul’s true character. Our world has no shortage of people speaking in a command or corrective voice, but it’s not my job to tip the balances by always using the praise tone. I’m still figuring out my own evolving nature and how best to use my voice. In the meantime, I’m grateful for wisdom gleaned from unexpected teachers along the way.