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Canine Communication and Body Language

A couple of years ago a Japanese electronics company came up with a Gizmo which they claimed could convert dogs barks, yips and whines into human language, thereby allowing us to understand "Doggie" speak for the first time. I was on a radio program recently, discussing the merits and usefulness of a new dog collar that was also a mobile phone. You could ring up and converse with your dog at any time and enjoy a nice cosy chat. You might as well text your pet for all the good phoning it would do; the mostly likely outcome of this idea would be to startle and frighten your pet.

In reality, real canine language is not just verbal; it is a rich visual language, where dogs are able to converse with each other irrespective of breed or nationality. A Collie from Wales can converse with an Akita from Japan and a Poodle living in France with a village dog in Ethiopia.

Dogs have a truly universal language that can be incredibly subtle and wide ranging. This marvellous language is one that we can also learn and understand, and through that ability communicate with our dogs far more effectively.

However this is a language that needs to be practiced for our dogs to be fluent. That is why early socialisation, puppy classes, and controlled play with other vaccinated dogs is so vitally important, especially in the critical periods from 7 to 16 weeks. As a behaviourist I get to treat many of these animals that are unable to give calming signals or are stunted in their ability to meet and greet because of the lack of early socialisation.

These are normally the ones that have fear and animosity towards other dogs and sometimes humans, culminating in the most common aggression of all "Fear". In many cases, they are unable to understand or signal their intentions; a classic example is boxers who are often attacked by other dogs. They have been bred with flattened features that are almost immobile, then we dock their tail to a tiny useless stub, making them unable to display some of the facial and tail signals that are so important in the greeting ritual.

I said earlier that we can learn this language, however some aspects of canine language are so complex, that we cannot even start to reproduce it with our puny two legs, small immobile ears, and lack of tail.

We are further hampered by the fact that we tend to think that our pets can understand complex thought patterns; we assume a dog's level of understanding is on a par with our own. This is known as "anthropomorphism", the dictionary definition is "The attribution of human motivation, characteristics, or behaviour to nonhuman organisms or inanimate objects". It is a bit like saying that a vine climbed up the tree to getter a better view of the garden.

Dogs and Vocalisation

Dogs do bark and vocalise it is a part of their ability to converse, however this is only one factor in your dogs language repertoire, effectively when they bark they are saying "Heyyyyy". This can be happy, demanding or questioning. They also communicate verbally in other ways the excited Yip when you get the lead out, the bark they make when someone is at the door, quite different from the nervous bark when they hear something unusual.

Having said that true communication comes from the glance, the head position, the body posture, and a myriad of other signals constantly being passed back and forth. Dogs try to converse with us, but without understanding the subtly of the language we often miss most of what they are trying to convey. This can cause misunderstanding and confusion and may be one of the main reasons we get the behavioural problems we see today.

Greeting and Appeasing Signals

We humans are the direct descendants of primates including ape's chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas. That is not to denigrate our unique position on the evolutionary ladder, but our heritage is none the less, Primate. Dog's ancestry is intrinsically linked to the wolf, therefore Canids, which include wolves, coyotes, and jackals, a very different species with very different body language.

Where communication sometimes breaks down is when we greet other species, we tend approach then as we would humans, face on making full eye contact; we often hug, face to face, putting our faces close together. Just look at the common greeting of kissing both cheeks. To a dog, this is a threatening gesture and is deemed rude and inappropriate.

Have you ever seen dogs hug? In the main most of our pets suffer this indignity in silence but not always. This is one of the reasons people are bitten, especially young children under five, who tend to cuddle everything they can get their hands on. This coupled with the fact that you cannot negotiate with a child under five, you have more chance of negotiating with a terrorist. Ask any mother, this sadly makes the toddler one of the most frequent victims of dog bites.

If you stand over a dog and ruffle the top of its head this can also be perceived as threatening, imagine someone coming up to you and ruffling your hair every time you met, how would you feel?

Turid Rugaas (1) The Norwegian behaviourist and acknowledged expert on reading the intricate body language of our canine companion's states that dogs have a highly developed set of calming signals that act as diffusers of aggression and conflict. These signals include circling, lip licking, yawning, sniffing the ground, looking away, moving very slowly and deliberately, the body shake as if shedding water, distracted sniffing, and either sitting or lying down. These signals are aimed at other dogs but are also directed at us, who are also perceived loosely as pack members.

Just as we expect our pets to understand our every word, then dogs think we can interpret their signals, quite often these are the ones we miss when our dogs are stressed or worried. If you can spot them you can actually signal back calming gestures in response such as yawning, lip licking, moving slowly, and looking away. This helps to diffuse the situation and relax your pet.

If you think about it, these actions are the opposite of the aggressive stance that dogs take as a prequel to an attack or dogfight.

Aggression

As opposed to the calming signals, this body language is initially easier to read and includes ears pinned back flat against head, or sometimes pointed forward, hackles raised, hard stare, low head stance, stiff legged walk, lips skinned back, and tail either upright and quivering or straight out not wagging. There may be low growling or a snarl. Sometimes the dog gives a whale eye this is when the head is turned slightly away but the eyes showing the whites are turned towards you. This is often the look when the dog is guarding something like a bone. All these signals are a threat, the dog is saying stop what you are doing or there could be violence.

In Wolf packs these threat displays are a way of controlling the hierarchical structure, the breeding males and females will control their pack position by these overtly aggressive stance . Rarely does it turn into violence these animals cannot really afford to be injured or hurt in an all out fight, therefore threat displays normally suffice.

Because of our and sometimes other dogs, inability to read the postures and body language and give calming signals in return means that sometimes the threats can actually escalate into physical violence.

Timid Dogs: If you find that your dog is very fearful or timid round strangers get them to walk him on a lead with you, it calms and gives confidence to the stressed dog, make sure you are walking next to the dog at the same time

In conclusion, we need to watch and learn from our pets, if you write down the numerous signals your pet gives and in what context you will gradually build up an understanding of what he is saying to you.

You can then signal back appeasing signals in return turn your head away, yawn, or lick your lips at a fearful or aggressive dog and you may just diffuse the situation.

With practice, you should find yourself more able to communicate with your dog with a more enriched and sophisticated vocabulary. This will benefit both you and your dog and allow you to have a better understanding and more relaxed relationship with your pet.

Stan Rawlinson
© June 2005

Dog Behaviourist and Obedience Trainer, Stan Rawlinson has owned and worked dogs for over 25 years, starting with gundogs but also specialising in the behavioural and obedience side of training companion dogs. He now has a successful practice covering Greater London, Surrey, and Middlesex.

Stan is recommended by numerous Vets, Rescue Centres, and Charities and writes for numerous magazines including Dogs Monthly, Our Dogs and K9 Magazine he also serves as an expert on K9 Magazine's Animal Advisory Panel.

http://www.doglistener.co.uk enquiries@doglistener.co.uk 0208 979 2019

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