Dogs – The Mondegreen factor

A “mondegreen” occurs when the listener hears something that was not actually said by the speaker. Church choirs must shoulder the blame for many of the better ones. I love that “Lead on Oh King Eternal” has been heard as “Lead on Oh Kinky Turtle”, or that “Gladly, the Cross I’d bear” is oft heard as “Gladly, the cross eyed bear”. Delicious!  My personal choral mishearing continues to be, “Oh My head! I have vipers in my hair”


The words are actually sung…”O’er my head I hear voices in the air”. I think.

The origin of the “Mondegreen” makes me smile. In a 1954 essay by Sylvia Wright, an American writer, she explained how she, as a child, always misheard the words of a Scottish ballad about the death of the Earl of Murray, The song’s lyrics tell of the earl’s death and how “they laid him on the green” but the child heard him die side by side with his faithful companion, “Lady Mondegreen”.  I love it!

And Wright argued in her essay that she much preferred her version of the ballad since the poor earl, accompanied in his final agonies by his loving Lady Mondegreen, made for a much more romantic picture. Hence, Wright gave us “Mondegreen” for the mis-hearing of words and phrases.

Song lyrics or poems are the usual and rather exciting source of the mondegreen. “Dead ants are my friends, they’re blowing in the wind” I believe makes a more arresting image than “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind”.  And I’m sure that many people would find “She’s got a chicken to ride” far more intriguing than the correct, “She’s got a ticket…”.

Dogs can experience mondegreens as well. They can mis- hear. The language we speak to our dogs is not composed solely of sound. They “hear” more than our words. Dogs “listen” also for our hand signals, our shoulder movements, our head turns, our arm placements, our leg actions, our foot movements, our facial expressions, our emotions, our breathing, our smells, and more besides.  All of these comprise “language” for our dogs. We often think we are “saying” something to our dog – but the dog may be hearing something different altogether. Doggie mondegreens!

Let’s look at a simple sound mis- hearing first. I was, once upon a time, inclined to train my rather sensitive dog with lots of ongoing verbal praise. As he worked in heelwork position beside me I burbled constantly in a happy, light tone.

“Yes!”, “Good Boy!”, “That’s it!”, “Well done!” “Niiiiice!” “Yay!”  I’d prattle to him. And he mostly happily high stepped it out along beside me. Except when he would occasionally lose confidence and lag a little. Seeing a video of our training one day revealed something. His loss of confidence occurred every time I said the words, “That’s it!”


Look at the last three letters. S-it. Closer inspection of the video showed that the dog’s hind end was suffering gravitational pull at those moments. Doh!

But that’s an easy doggie mondegreen. What about all the times we unintentionally allow mondegreens to happen non verbally?

I watch people setting up their dog for the Sendaway exercise and pointing to the Sendaway box. Pointing is a human gesture. It only causes the dog to be attracted to our hand, not to where we are pointing. This surely defeats our purpose. We want to get the dog to look forwards yet our body “language”, our hand cue, causes the dog to look at us. Result? Misunderstanding on the dog’s part.  Mondegreen!

Then there are the people who use the policeman’s splayed hand Stop! signal just as they leave their dog and want it to stay. Dogs are attracted by movement. How many dogs misinterpret this attractive gesture and confidently follow their handler out of the stay? It happens. Maybe the last thing we should be doing if we want a dog not to follow us is to waggle an attractive, scent filled hand in front of his face.

And just a last one for now, (though you’re probably thinking of lots more), what about the handler in the Recall exercise who wants his dog to wait and walks off and then puts his hand in his pocket three paces out? We say one thing (“Wait!”) but the dog “hears” another because the dog interprets ALL our language, not just what we say.

And of course, just like the essayist Sylvia Wright far preferred her own interpretation of the language, the dog in this instance will also prefer his “mondegreen”. When his handler sticks his hand in his pocket the dog will not hear “Wait there until I call you!”  He will hear “Treats!” Mondegreen.

So how do we avoid the mondegreen factor in our dog training? Well, we try to make sure that the dog really does hear what it is we are trying to communicate. We check that they are listening. We reinforce the right move on the dog’s part. We “proof” our training.

For instance, if we say “Stay!” and then gently roll the dog’s ball across its path, will the dog really hear our Stay command? Lots of praise if he does. And couldn’t we work this up to a time when we will be able to say, “Stay!” and fire the dog’s favourite toy forward at the same instant…the dog will eventually learn to “hear” our Stay request.

Many dogs, for example, mis- hear their handler’s “language” if the handler changes his body position. Will a dog maintain a sit stay for instance if the handler walks away …and then sits down? Many dogs will misinterpret the language and will move towards their handler.

We need, as handlers, to realise the import of our, even slightest, movements for our dogs.

If, in the Agility ring, we would like to be mainly voice cue handlers I wonder what would happen if we ran towards the A Frame and yelled “Tunnel!” ….lavish praise indeed for the dog who really hears us and goes into the tunnel. On the other hand, if we require to make our dog more body signal conscious in the ring we might do it the other way round…say tunnel (softly at first) and indicate the A frame with our arm signal. And hope the dog listens to our body language and rockets up the A frame, taking his cue from our body signal and not from our words.

We need to help our dogs to hear what we are really saying. We won’t win in the competition rings with mondegreens!

Our poor dogs. Thank God they don’t have to listen to church choirs. Dog only knows what they might hear.

In our village church yesterday morning we read Psalm 22. You know the one; about the Good Shepherd? I was all set to slyly enjoy the Mondegreen. But they’ve changed the words! Mrs Murphy isn’t there any more. We had, “Surely goodness and KINDNESS shall follow me all the days of my life” instead of goodness and MERCY… (“Shirley, good Mrs. Murphy shall follow me all the days of my life”).

I missed the mondegreen. And if God has a sense of humour I’m sure He misses it too.

About consistentclarity

I have been involved in education all my working life. I am trained as a teacher and have taught both children and adults. I am fascinated by how people and animals learn and all that they have in common. Music and literature have been central in my life.
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1 Response to Dogs – The Mondegreen factor

  1. Very true Rosemary, I get it now! Thanks.

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