Dog’s Eye View: What did you say?
August 10, 2018
A rather large barrier to any conversation is not having a grasp of the other person's language. This may seem obvious, but the fact is that when we get a new dog we tend to overlook this point. Like us, dogs are communicating all of the time. We are primarily verbal in our language but dogs are primarily nonverbal. Even when we aren't speaking we are expressing something with body language. Dogs make different sounds vocally, but use their bodies to let other dogs and humans know what they are feeling.
I love teaching dog language to dog owners. Sometimes it appears that our dog/human relationship embodies a one way stream of commands directed toward our dog without stepping back to realize initially that our words mean nothing to him. He's really reading our body language to try to figure out what we want. When we start to recognize that their behavior is uniquely canine and has meaning our relationship can grow.
An important thing to remember is that dog communication is flowing constantly in small observable signals. For instance, in any given place in time he might shake his body as if he'd just gotten out of water, put his ears back, open his mouth, jump back, put his front legs down in front of him and wag his tail. If this behavior is directed at another dog he might be is saying, how about a game of chase? All of these behaviors come together in a matter of seconds.
When we're interpreting dog language, we focus on the moment and context in which the behavior occurs. By this, I mean specifically where did the behavior happen? Who or what was present? What objects, if any, were there such as bones, toys or other things in which the dog might be interested? What was happening just before that moment?
We are so often concerned about aggressive incidents that we tend to brush aside the continuous daily communication with our dog that is so sweet and interesting. Aggressive body posture often stands out with easily recognizable displays of barking and lunging. His ears may be forward showing confidence or held back indicating less confidence. His fur may be standing up on his back. He may be growling and staring directly at us or glancing away less confidently. His mouth may be closed and his tail may be erect and stiff or perhaps tucked under his body in a less confident or fearful posture.
Some of the softer body signals speak to us in the form of squinting eyes that repeatedly blink when greeting us or lip licking where his tongue flicks up to his nose. He may yawn and lift one front paw as a gesture of appeasement towards us. Dogs that present a low body posture with ears back and tail wagging low, almost seeming to turn themselves inside out when greeting us are seeking attention. In their eyes they are doing everything they can to defer to us. If the dog urinates at this time, he's signaling that he's subordinate and this would cause most high ranking or adult dogs (and hopefully knowledgeable people) to give him some space.
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To me making the effort to speak my dog's language changes the dynamic of our relationship completely. They have a large and specific behavioral repertoire. How can any of us say that we love dogs if we don't make the effort to learn their language? Help is on the way. One of my favorite books on dog language is "Canine Behavior – A Photo Illustrated Handbook" by Barbara Handelman, M.Ed, CDBC, 2008 Available at Dogwise.com. Another highly respected author is Sue Sternberg who has many publications and DVD's available through Dogwise.com including a book on understanding behavior at dog parks.
Sandra Kruczek is a certified professional dog trainer at Total Teamwork Training LLC with more than 30 years of experience.