Can You Read Your Dog?

by Sandra Murray

Reprinted from: Essential Elements, ShowSight Magazine

Any animal that lives within a tightly knit social group of its own kind has a “language.” Given that dogs are by nature pack animals, they have a rather extensive language that they use to communicate among themselves. Their language contains both physical and verbal components which each member of the group must recognize and be able to respond accordingly. Conflict is dangerous in that it causes physical injuries and weakens the pack. Harmony and cooperation in the pack are essential for it to function successfully and survive.

Because dogs are pack animals, they learn the finer points of the language of their species from their mothers, other adult dogs and their littermates. Some of this language is simply inherent, a part of their DNA, but much of the “rules” in canine etiquette need to be taught. Some of you may have had experience dealing with puppies that were taken from their dams and littermates too soon—before 8 weeks of age. Generally speaking, these pups lack the ability to read many of the cues given to them by other dogs. They behave like little puppy bumper cars, frequently crashing into one canine faux pas after another, because they aren’t “reading” the canine social cues properly.

When it comes to understanding the language of dogs, we humans resemble those puppies. Our dogs continually give us messages and cues which we either misread or are oblivious of them. The result is frustration for both us and our dogs. Fortunately, a trainer in Norway has studied dog language and offers us a translation guide.

Calming signals

Turid Rugass is an international dog trainer and educator who has served the dog community as an ethologist, carefully studying dog behavior. The result of her hours of observation is a lengthy list of behaviors that dogs use to communicate in their language. All dogs know this language no matter what the breed or in which country they live. They use this language because it is the only one that they know and they think that we know it, too. Therein lays the problem. Unless we take the time to learn it -- to “read” our dogs -- a real culture clash happens.

Turid explains, “Dogs live in a world of sensory input: visual, olfactory, auditory perceptions. They easily perceive tiny details -- a quick signal, a slight change in another´s behavior, the expression in our eyes. Pack animals are so perceptive to signals that a horse can be trained to follow the contraction in our pupils, and a dog can be trained to answer your whispering voice. There´s no need to shout commands, to make the tone of our voice deep and angry—what Karen Pryor refers to as swatting flies with a shovel.”

When we fail to “read” our dogs’ calming signals or even punish the dogs, we cause serious emotional harm to them and to our relationship with them. Turid has observed that, “Some [dogs] may simply give up using the calming signals, including with other dogs. Others may get so desperate and frustrated that they get aggressive, nervous or stressed out as a result. Puppies and young dogs may actually go into a state of shock.”

For instance, if someone uses a loud or aggressive tone of voice to a dog, the animal quite rightly perceives the aggression and may yawn or turn its head away in an attempt to calm the human. If that signal is misread as stubbornness or disobedience and causes the owner to be even more forceful, the poor dog is left confused and frustrated.

Another example would be the overly submissive dog that lowers its body and urinates while wagging its tail -- typically, when the owner returns home after a brief absence. This dog is trying desperately to be accepted by its owner with two calming signals (lowering its body and wagging its tail) plus one fear signal (submissive urination). Punishment for this behavior will only increase the dog’s insecurity and fear.

How dogs use 
the calming signals

Turid has observed over 30 calming signals and recognizes that there may be even more. Dogs often use calming signals in combinations, so look for several signals at once as the dog attempts to restore peace in a stressful situation. Here are a few of the most common and what they communicate to us:

Yawning

Dogs often yawn when they feel stressed. The stress can happen when family members are arguing loudly, when the dog is at the vet´s office, when someone is walking directly toward the dog, when the dog is tired and the training session has been too long or when you ask the dog to do something that he doesn’t want to do. Stress can even come in the form of excitement and anticipation such as standing by the door waiting to go for a walk or a ride in the car. Whether it is “good” stress or “bad” stress, yawning is one of the many signals dogs use to calm emotions or diffuse a tense situation.

Licking

Another commonly used calming signal is licking. In some dogs the licking may be overt with the tongue licking up and over their nose. Other dogs are surreptitious lickers, barely extending the tongue out of their mouths. Other dogs can see and do respond to the 
sneakiest of lickers. Licking cues an approaching dog that the licker is no threat and doesn’t have any intention of attacking. This signal serves to diffuse possible aggression.

Looking away

A dog may simply turn his head slightly to one side or turn it to a full 90 degrees. He may even turn his entire body around so that his back and tail are facing the other dog. As with all of the calming signals, the extent to which they are exhibited encompasses a full spectrum. Dogs can give signals which are barely noticeable obvious, or extreme in their manner of delivery. The “looking away” signal reflects this variability. This signal is a very common one and does indeed vary from just a sideways glance to a full body turn around. When given to another dog, this cue works nearly every time to calm the other dog and avoid conflict. In the accompanying photo, the dog on the right has turned its head away from the dog on the left because of that dog’s rigid, looming, somewhat overwhelming presence.

Dogs use the “looking away” signal with humans, too. If someone is walking straight toward your dog, he will exhibit the “looking away” signal to whatever degree he perceives is necessary. If a human bends over a dog, stares at a dog or uses a loud voice, the dog will use “looking away” to calm the human. If an owner has made the training session too long, the dog will “look away.” Once you’ve learned to recognize this signal, you will see dogs using it in many different situations—whenever he feels uncomfortable or threatened.

Play bow

Another almost fool proof calming signal that will eliminate a potential conflict is the play bow. In the photo the black dog’s play bow signal hasn’t even been completed yet, but already the Harlequin Great Dane is responding. It’s rather hard to be aggressive when met with such an irresistible invitation to play. Often the play bow is used when strange dogs meet, because this signal can diffuse a potentially dangerous situation. Dogs absolutely love it when their humans drop to the ground and give their dogs a play bow signal. What a delightful relief for a dog to know that his human speaks “dog language!”

Sniffing the ground

All dogs have an exceptional sense of smell and use their noses for many purposes, mainly as an information gathering tool -- but they can also sniff the ground as a means of calming themselves. Puppies use this signal a great deal, probably because the world is so big and full of experiences, sights and sounds that are all new and strange to them. This signal can be as fleeting as the dropping its nose to the ground for a brief moment or as obvious as holding its nose to the ground and sniffing for several minutes. You will see your dog using the ground sniffing signal when a stranger is walking directly toward you and your dog or when the dog is in a noisy, overly active environment. He may also use this signal when he sees objects that he is unfamiliar with and that cause him to feel a bit intimidated.

Walking slowly

Fast movement can be seen as threatening to some dogs. Another dog or a human running toward such dogs will elicit a calming signal to lower the threat. A dog that is insecure will move slowly. We humans can become frustrated and angry with such a dog, probably because we think that he is being stubborn, refusing to obey us in a timely manner. Of course, the dog sees and feels that anger, so he moves even more slowly to calm the human -- a downward spiral of miscommunication. Generally speaking, if we see a dog responding to us with this calming signal, then our response needs to be moving slowly also, perhaps, even slower than the dog. This response signals to him that we understand his insecurity and will try our best to assure him that he is safe with us and can trust us.

Freezing

Dogs can stop and freeze while standing, sitting or lying down. They use this signal to stop what to them appears to be aggressive behavior from another dog or a human. An angry voice from someone who seems threatening will often cause a dog to freeze in order to make the person behave calmly again. If the dog feels threatened but sees no escape, he may freeze. Obviously, if the frozen motion is in response to an owner’s behavior, the dog should not be forced to move. No learning can take place while a dog feels fear or is stressed. He must be reassured that no harm will come to him and that his human offers comfort and safety. Only then, can the dog move forward with a mind that is once again teachable.

In the accompanying photo the dog has frozen in hopes of calming what he perceives to be a threatening posture of another dog looming over him. In such cases a dog needs to know that his owner will keep him safe by removing the threat first before asking him to resume movement.

Walking in curves

For mammals of any species, a human or other predator (yes, humans are predators) that walks swiftly and purposely straight toward them presents a very real threat. All of their instincts tell dogs that such an approach is dangerously wrong. If an owner ignores this innate response in his dog while walking straight toward a strange dog, then his dog may become anxious and defensive. The result will be barking and lunging at other dogs, using aggression to protect himself. On their own, dogs will always approach a strange dog or object in a series of curves. Dogs consider curving approaches to be calming and non-threatening, giving each dog an opportunity to evaluate the other and lower the threat level. That is exactly what the two dogs in the photo are doing. They haven’t quite decided yet if all is well, but are physically close together while still in their circling pattern.

These are but a few of the many calming signals that dogs employ to communicate with each other and with us humans. Some others include smiling, smacking the lips, wagging the tail and making the face round and smooth with ears close to the head to look as much like a puppy as possible, because a dog believes that no one would harm a puppy. The more we practice recognizing dogs’ calming signals and learn to make our responses appropriate, the better will be our relationships with our dogs. Whether we learn to read this language of peacemaking for maintaining a dog’s happiness in the show ring, to excel in a performance event or to build more harmony in a partnership with a pet, improved communication with our dogs can only make life better for both of us.

Turid Rugass has both a book and a DVD available on her website for those who want to learn more about how to read...their dog.

Until next time,
Sandra
horsnhound@gmail.com

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