Communication Goes Two Ways

An entire industry, dog training, is dedicated to teaching dogs to understand what we want. Even dog owners who don’t go to training classes or hire private trainers spend a lot of time trying to communicate to their dogs (and often being frustrated at their apparent failures). Literally hundreds of books offer tips for teaching dogs to understand what we tell them.
What about helping us understand what our dogs are saying?
Our dogs are excellent communicators. Even the ones who don’t seem all that smart because they never do what their moms and dads ask probably are reading Mom, Dad, and all other humans better than any human ever could. Those dogs are also, most likely, using their whole bodies, putting heart and soul into trying to tell those very humans what they need, want, and feel.
We’re just very poor listeners.
Dogs use their tails, their ears, their hackles, their voices to communicate. A slight lift of a lip tells a story, as do exposed teeth, a lowered head, a low, slow tail wag. Each bark, yip, and growl has a different meaning. All dog owners should strive for a general understanding of what dogs in general say with their bodies.
The most important place to start, I think, is recognizing when a dog is uncomfortable, stressed, or afraid. Since some of the body language can look similar to friendly or happy dog body language, many people miss important signs.
For example, that wagging tail. It means a happy dog, right? Not always. Dogs’ tail wags are very nuanced. A tail held high and wagged fast generally means an excited or happy dog, but a lower, slower wag can be a sign of apprehension or discomfort. If the tail is stiff, or the tail is moving slowly and the rest of the dog’s body is stiff, you are not looking at a happy dog.

Cali relaxed

“Smiling dogs” are another area of confusion. If the dog’s lips are pulled back in what looks like a smile, and her eyes are soft and her tail is wagging loosely, she’s happy. But if the eyes are hard or are darting between you and someone or something else or the hackles are up, you are more likely looking at a stress smile. That dog is scared or stressed.
Take a look at these photos of Cali (when she was a much younger puppy). The right-hand photo shows her with soft eyes, and her mouth is relaxed. She looks soft. Happy. But the photo on the left (below) shows stress. Her eyes are hard and scared. Her mouth is more rigid.

Cali stress

Other signs of stress? Sweaty paws, furrowed brow, ears plastered back against the head, repeated lip licking or yawning, tail low or tucked, stiff posture, and panting. Many dogs will refuse treats in a stressful situation. Watch for avoidance behaviors: Some will sniff the ground when faced with a strange dog or even try to walk away.
A general understanding of what dogs’ body language means is important for anyone who spends time around dogs. But it’s even more valuable to invest some effort in learning your own dog’s body language and vocal vocabulary. What are her stress signs? How does she show you affection, share joy, express empathy? Learning her cues will strengthen your relationship.
Then, you can take the next step and start giving your dog ways to ask for what she needs!

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6 thoughts on “Communication Goes Two Ways

  1. Great topic. We really can benefit by paying attention to our dog’s intentions. All too often we attribute the wrong intention to our dogs. In general, I think we all (at least sometimes) expect way too much from our dogs. We talk to them as if they were humans that understood our native language. And they do an amazing job of appearing to understand what we want. I suppose that leads to frustration at times simply because we attribute understanding to them which they don’t necessarily have.

    Brenda Aloff has dedicated one of her books to the body language of dogs.

    “Canine Body Language” is an exhaustive photographic documentation of dogs in their day-to-day activities: Dogs alone, dogs together, dogs in the water, dogs having fun, dogs that are stressed and dogs in relation to human beings. In addition to the incredible photographs, author Brenda Aloff gives the reader detailed descriptions of what is happening in each photograph so that you can build your canine vocabulary.

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    • Hi Tom!
      I have the body language one, and I have used it in a dog communication course I teach. I definitely like the relationship-focused approach to training. I don’t always agree with her interpretations of dogs’ body language, but then again, I don’t know her dogs — I think it’s crucial to have a general understanding of dog body language in general but I also think that reading an individual dog successfully takes knowing that dog, too. I’d be interested in her book on relationship, too.

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  2. Excellent article! I always try to use the “meet you half way” approach when I train. Being aware of communication and, furthermore, the fact that dogs are living beings with a variety of emotions and needs leads to a much more beautiful partnership with them!

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