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What Do You Know About Canine Communication?

All behaviors that dogs exhibit are designed either to access pleasurable situations and desirable objects or to avoid and escape unpleasant situations and undesirable objects. (Note: this is based on what each individual dog considers to pleasant or unpleasant, not the human, and it is important to be aware that the canine and human opinions may differ in any given situation!)

A dog’s communication systems are greatly ritualized, and have evolved specifically to avoid or cut off conflict. This has made dogs, as a species, very successful in terms of their numbers, variety, and adaptability. Things, however, can go awry when we humans misread the signals dogs send us, leaving them helpless to effectively communicate their feelings to us no matter how hard they try.

We cannot know or understand what dogs think and vice-versa. What we can do, though, is understand their body language, observe them carefully as we interact with them, and then respond appropriately.

“Speaking dog” is simple if you remember a few important rules, and has the added bonus of making any interaction with dogs more fun and safe – not to mention, the dogs you come into contact with will really appreciate it.

Types of Social Behavior

The types of social behaviors dogs demonstrate can be broadly grouped into the following two possibilities:

Distance Decreasing.

A dog uses distance decreasing behaviors to promote approach, play and continued interaction. A lumbering soft gait, relaxed body, and a relaxed face, where the muscles are loose, indicate the dog is encouraging interaction, as does a dog who is moving towards you or leaning into you. The dog may also offer you a paw or rub against you. Dogs who want to engage in play will demonstrate the “play bow,” a posture where the dog literally bows the front of his body so the front legs are parallel to the ground while the hindquarters remain in the standing position.

Distance Increasing.

Distance increasing signals vary and can be easily misread. The signals many of us seem to have no trouble understanding are when a dog stands tall, making each part of his body appear as large as possible, with his weight on the front legs, displaying an upright tail and ears, and piloerection (i.e. the hair along the spine stands up/raised hackles). The dog may also vocalize (e.g. bark or growl). We seem to instinctively react to these signals and take them as the warnings they are intended to be. (See also the upcoming section on anxiety and stress for more on distance increasing signals.)

Misinterpreting Distance Increasing Signals

There are also a number of distance increasing signals we humans commonly misinterpret. These are the more appeasing behaviors dogs demonstrate. Dogs use these appeasement behaviors to make friendly encounters more predictable and to help them diffuse what they anticipate might be a hostile encounter if escape is impossible. These behaviors are a nonaggressive way to “cut off” conflict. When dogs display these behaviors, we need to recognize that this is their way of showing us they are unsure and a little scared.

Appeasement Signals

You may see appeasement signals in one of two ways:

1. Passive Appeasement.

Passive appeasement behaviors are commonly misunderstood and are often labeled as “submissive.” Dogs displaying passive appeasement will present themselves in a recumbent position exposing the underside of their body. The dog’s ears are typically back and down against the head and the tail is often tucked between the upper legs. Sometimes the dog will expel a small amount of urine while he waits for the attention or the situation he perceives to be hostile to cease.

2. Active Appeasement.

Dogs displaying active appeasement gestures are often incorrectly labeled as “excited,” “overly friendly,” or even “pushy.” They will often approach you with their whole rear-end wagging in a “U” shape allowing both their face and genital area to be inspected. They may be desperate to jump up and get “in your face.”

For humans, then, it is important when meeting and greeting dogs to be able to recognize if a dog is genuinely friendly and wanting to greet you, or if he is experiencing stress, anxiety or fear.

Conflicted Dogs

A dog in conflict will want to approach but at the same time is too scared or unsure of the outcome. His body language will vacillate between displays of distance decreasing behaviors and distance increasing behaviors. Interacting with a dog that is conflicted can be risky. If you make a wrong move and the dog cannot avoid the approach, then he may become aggressive. This is often the case with a “fear biter.” Many dogs who bite, bite out of fear. Our appearance and movement towards them is scary, and they bite as a last resort to encourage us to leave. Dogs whose bite is motivated from fear often display ambivalent, mixed signals. This means they are conflicted. They are torn between approaching and being scared so they will move back and forth in their communication. This conflict can be displayed very quickly and can result in nips and bites. When dogs are showing fear it is advisable to avoid sudden movements, and to allow the dog an escape route. Do not force the meet and greet by moving toward the dog, having the dog’s owner manipulate the dog into moving toward you, or trying to touch the dog in any way.

Cut-Off Behaviors

It is important that we recognize a dog’s cut-off behaviors. These are designed to end social contact. If, when greeting a dog, you do not recognize that he is scared or stressed, or you choose to ignore his signals and push forward with your approach, you are unfairly pushing him into a situation where he may feel he is only left with one option, and that is not a favorable option either to dog or human. In other words, he may feel he has no other choice but to bite.

When we get a little irritated we may tell somebody to “push off “or “cut it out.” If they don’t respond then we may speak a little more firmly and we may even shout at them. Our dogs cannot do this. They cannot explain or plead with us in English, or whichever language we speak. They can only use their canine communication system. It is up to us to understand and respond to this system so the dog does not feel threatened to the point where he escalates his warnings to a bite!

In our experience, we have learned that:

  • Recognizing the subtle signs that indicate a dog is feeling anxious, stressed or fearful can prevent people from being bitten.
  • Educating the dog-owning community about canine body language, and how to know when their dog may be getting to the point where he feels he may need to bite, can save a child from being bitten.
  • Being aware of, understanding and acknowledging the subtle signs in a dog’s body language and facial expression that indicate an anxious, stressed or fearful emotional state will help family members to reassess and/or change their actions towards their pet.

Checkout this great resource A Kids’ Comprehensive Guide to Speaking Dog!

A fun, interactive, educational resource to help the whole family understand canine communication. Keep future generations safe by learning to “speak dog!” Download your copy today. It is designed to be used by parents with their children in a fun and interactive manner

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