How to Teach a Dog to Speak

Teach your dog to bark or “speak” by marking the bark and associating it with a cue.

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Want to teach your dog to talk? “Speak” is a simple trick, especially if your dog is already vocal. It can be helpful to have a dog who will bark on cue, whether as a party trick or to discourage someone’s unwanted approach.

Here’s how to teach a dog to speak:

  1. Trigger the bark. Start with something that already prompts your dog to bark. Ring the doorbell. Ask if she wants to go outside. Jump around and get excited.
  2. Mark the bark. When she barks in response to your trigger, mark with a clicker or verbal marker (such as the word, “Yes!”) immediately after the first woof (to avoid prolonged or frenzied barking), and then feed her a delicious treat. Repeat a half-dozen times (trigger a bark, mark, and reward).
  3. Add a cue. Use a verbal “Speak” cue or hand signal (such as pointing to your mouth, making a “quacking duck” gesture with your hand, or cupping your ear). Use the cue, then trigger the bark. When your dog barks, mark and reward with a tasty treat. Repeat this sequence (cue, trigger, bark, mark, reward) at least a dozen times.
  4. Fade the trigger. When your dog responds to the bark cue followed by the trigger, increase the time between giving the cue and triggering the bark; pause for about five to eight seconds. She should begin to bark after the cue and before you add the trigger. Yay! You’ve now taught your dog how to “speak” on cue!
  5. If, ultimately, you want to teach your dog both a verbal cue and a hand signal, teach one first. After you have successfully faded the trigger, teach the second cue. Give your new cue first (i.e., hand signal) followed by the old cue (verbal). After about a half-dozen repetitions, start adding the five- to eight-second pause, to see if she makes the mental connection between the two cues and starts responding to the new cue before you can use the old one.
  6. If your dog often makes a variety of vocalizations, you can create and associate a different cue to each of her vocabulary “words” using the same process as above.

Note: Be sure to mark and reward your dog for barking only when you’ve asked her to speak, to avoid reinforcing her for demand barking.

How to Teach a Dog to Speak
Use “talking” buttons to teach your dog to speak and communicate like “I want a treat” or “I want to go outside.” ©Melissa L Kauffman

How to teach a dog to speak with talking buttons

Wait; you wanted your dog to speak real words? Try talking buttons! While science has not confirmed that dogs know what they’re saying when they push buttons, you can have fun with them. You can put a button by the door that says, “Outside!” Press the button before you let your dog outside, and use shaping to show her how to press it herself. Be sure to let her outside each time she presses the button, so she understands that the sound of “Outside!” means you will let her out! Similarly, you can have one near your dog’s toy box that says, “Play!” – but if your dog is particularly food-driven, we’d probably recommend skipping ones that say, “Hungry!” or “Treat!” unless your dog really needs to gain weight!

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WDJ's Training Editor Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, grew up in a family that was blessed with lots of animal companions: dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, goats, and more, and has maintained that model ever since. She spent the first 20 years of her professional life working at the Marin Humane Society in Marin County, California, for most of that time as a humane officer and director of operations. She continually studied the art and science of dog training and behavior during that time, and in 1996, left MHS to start her own training and behavior business, Peaceable Paws. Pat has earned a number of titles from various training organizations, including Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA) and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA). She also founded Peaceable Paws Academies for teaching and credentialing dog training and behavior professionals, who can earn "Pat Miller Certified Trainer" certifications. She and her husband Paul and an ever-changing number of dogs, horses, and other animal companions live on their 80-acre farm in Fairplay, Maryland.

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