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Extract from Aunty Kaye’s Doggy Dictionary of Training and Behaviour

Tom Lehrer, the Harvard mathematics professor who wrote and sang satirical songs in the 1960s commented on the tendency for people to talk about communication problems. “I believe” he said “that if people can’t communicate, the very least they can do is to shut up about it”.

I guess most people think they know what communication is. However, just for the record, I will try to clarify it. Communication involves the sending and receiving of information or signals. It is a two-way process. Just transmitting does not constitute communication. For communication to exist, there must also be a receiver, and the receiver has to understand what has been sent by means of some shared “code” which gives a common meaning to the signals.

I think the signals can be deliberate, for example when you say “I am not comfortable with this situation”, but they can also be involuntary, for example when by blushing you communicate your embarrassment. The communication can be conscious – you will usually be aware of blushing – but it can be semi-conscious or unconscious, as in when you shift uncomfortably in your seat.

The signals given off by dogs can be regarded as communication when they serve the purpose of being received by others, usually resulting in some sort of feedback in the form of action or return communication.

I would distinguish between, say, Fluffy scratching herself, which she does for her own reasons, and doing something which is more clearly directed towards you or occurring because you are are there. By scratching herself, Fluffy is not trying to tell you that she has fleas – except perhaps metaphorically. But by pawing at the door, she may well be communicating that she wants you to open it.

A dog that flattens her ears in a characteristically fearful expression can be said to be communicating something along the lines of “I am not comfortable about being approached”. Some body language seems deliberate, as when a puppy grovels in the presence of an older dog.

One of the secrets of success in the process of domestication of the dog and the long history of the lives shared by people and dogs is that both are social mammals who live in groups and have various ways of communicating within their group and communicating with strangers.

Of course communication is vastly more complex when spoken and written language exists, but it occurs by other means as well.

Dogs communicate primarily by body language, movement, facial expression and vocalisation – as people do too. Much of the  meaning of these communications is shared by the two species.

However, there are many examples of miscommunication between dogs and people.

What the body language and expressions of dogs “mean” has been the subject of much study and disagreement amongst “experts”, while pet owners typically read very broad and fanciful meanings into their pets’ behaviour and expressions.

• How dogs communicate

When you are handling a dog you should be aware that:

  • there are socially sensitive areas of the dog’s body, such as the head, neck and shoulders
  • body language conveys threat or challenge to the dog
  • there are postures which entice the dog to come to you, avoid you or react in certain ways

• How to interpret a dog’s body language

Dogs have very expressive bodies. Virtually all parts of the body can change to indicate different states. Characteristic changes take place in the position of the ears, tail, lips, facial expression, legs and body as well as the fur, which can be relaxed or erect (as when the hackles are up). These changes indicate relaxation, alertness, fear, playfulness, confidence, submission, threat of aggression and sometimes mixed feelings.

Various illustrations of these postures are available. However, you should bear in mind that they are models, and each individual dog may show a mixture of signals.

Clearly they vary with circumstances as well as with the character of the dog as with the nature of the interaction occurring at the time.  The dog’s reaction to a situation depends on what he has learnt from past experience as well as how the other person, other dog or dog and person react. Problems arise when the meaning the dog attaches to body language is different from that of the person.

• How dogs interpret our body language

Dogs react to the body language of people. Sometimes they misinterpret our intentions. For example, a human hand reaching out to pat the dog can be interpreted as an intrusion into the dog’s personal space and potential threat. A tall person bending over to pat a dog can seem over-bearing and threatening to the dog. A child hugging a dog can trigger the dog’s instinct to escape from dangerous restraint.

While individual dogs will vary according to their socialisation and experience, here are a few common pointers:

  • Bending or looming over a dog can be intimidating to a submissive dog and a challenge to a dominant dog.
  • Standing up straight increases your authority. You can look relaxed and friendly,  but can also look threatening if you stand still and stare rigidly at the dog.
  • Leaning back makes you more approachable to a dog lacking confidence, less of a threat to a dominant dog.
  • Squatting down also makes you more approachable, but an easy target for an opportunistic dog. Lying down reduces your status.
  • Approaching head on is more threatening than approaching side on.
  • Continuing to approach when the dog backs off is threatening, especially if the dog becomes cornered.

• Vocal language

You should also be aware of dogs’ vocal language. For example:

  • littermates yelping and whining
  • expressions of distress
  • territorial barking

are all different tones that the dog may use. Humans often convey the wrong message to the dog by saying one thing and communicating another by tone of voice.


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