Home In-Depth Feature Dogs – Detecting the Hidden Clues in What They’re Saying to Us

Dogs – Detecting the Hidden Clues in What They’re Saying to Us


By Vicki Smith | April 7th, 2017

Vicki Smith worked for 20 years as Director of Services Education and Program Development at PetSmart and is a professional pet trainer specializing in dogs and horses. She has published a book on house training dogs titled “Potty Training IS Possible” that has sold over 2 million copies since it first came out in 1999.

Dogs are amazing. Dogs remind us how important it is to find joy in life’s simple pleasures. They shower us in unconditional love, provide us with loyal companionship and never question our motives when we love them back. They fit into our lives in ways that encourage us to share our homes, meals and even our beds with them. Perhaps this is because one of the more surprising skills that dogs possess is the ability to learn how to understand our spoken language, taking into account not just our words but often our actual meaning or intent. Dogs manage this impressive feat because they have a highly sophisticated language of their own, one that we humans, so focused on our verbal discourse, frequently misinterpret or ignore altogether.

Descendant of Wolves

Modern dogs evolved from ancient wolves, which are highly social animals living in well-structured family units known as packs. The pack provides protection and companionship for the wolf similar to the lifestyle arrangement between dogs and humans. Cooperation among pack members requires communication. Both wolves and dogs do use some vocalizations including whines, growls, and barks to convey their thoughts and wishes, but the majority of canine “talking” takes the form of physical signals known as body language.

”Google Translation” for Dogs

Animal behaviorists have documented a rich vocabulary of body language signs that dogs use to communicate with each other and with humans, yet while dogs the world over all seem to know these signals instinctively, they are likely surprised at how often their human friends misinterpret or entirely overlook their attempts at communication. For example, children are often taught that a dog who is wagging his tail is friendly. This miscalculation might lead a child to ignore other signals that the dog is exhibiting such as erect body posture, fixed and staring eye contact or a stiff, directly advancing gait. All of these signs of potential aggression from an approaching dog would warn another dog that caution is needed, but the message that a wagging tail is always friendly might lure a child to disregard what the dog is actually saying, at the risk of getting bitten.

Misinterpretation of dog body language cues are common, leading to frustration and sometimes anger on the part of the human misreading the signs. One common scenario is the dog owner who returns home to find a treasured item such as a favorite pair of shoes chewed to bits on the living room rug. The owner gets angry and yells at the dog, and the dog shows obvious signs of “guilt” by lowering his head and slinking away. The owner comes to believe that the dog “knows” that chewing the shoes is wrong and becomes resentful of the dog’s willful disobedience. This belief is reinforced by the fact that, when the owner is home, the dog leaves the shoes alone.

Common Misinterpretations

The problem with this interpretation is twofold: first, the dog is not showing signs of guilt but is instead demonstrating submission, and second, dogs are situational learners that make it surprisingly difficult for them to take information they learn in one situation and extrapolate it to their benefit in another setting. In the case of the shoes, the dog learns that it is wrong to chew the shoes when the owner is there because the owner prevents it, whether by distracting the dog, yelling, removing the dog from the room or putting the shoes away. Since none of these preventive measures occurs when the owner is not home, the dog finds no reason not to chew the shoes.

But what about that obviously guilty, hang-dog expression on the dog’s face upon the owner’s returning home to find the bad deed? We, as humans, believe the dog should feel guilt, so that is what we see. In reality, the dog is showing body language cues from at least two, and maybe three, different categories of behaviors. The first is submission. Lowering the body and head, crouching, sometimes even rolling over to expose the belly are all submissive behaviors. The dog offers these cues to his human in reply to the angry outburst that followed the discovery of the chewed shoes. Some of the cues may not be submissive at all but are instead “calming signals,” which are behaviors that dogs use to lower the emotion in a situation. Calming signals are complex, with as many as 30 different signs being noted by animal behaviorists, and dogs use them when they are asking you to chill out. Calming signals in this situation might include squinting eyes, licking lips, turning the head to the side or even turning the whole body away. Additional cues that are not calming signals, such as lowered or pinned-back ears, rapid panting, pulled back lips or even fleeing, could suggest outright fear if the owner’s behavior implies that punishment might follow. Whether the dog feels actual guilt can be debated, but the body language cues do not reveal it.

Other misunderstood calming signal cues that cause frustration often occur during periods of stress for both dog and owner, leading to even more anxiety. For example, if during an obedience class the dog suddenly turns his head away and stops responding, the owner can reasonably be expected to interpret this as insubordination because the dog appears to have stopped listening. The truth is, the dog hears quite clearly but is expressing distress. He is using a calming signal in response to the situation. Perhaps he doesn’t understand the obedience command or doesn’t feel confident performing it. If the directive was given in a stern tone, he may be asking to bring it down a notch. Other dogs would immediately recognize the appearance of avoidance as stress and typically modify their behavior to bring the emotional level down. Humans routinely see this as defiance and escalate the argument, likely leaving the dog to wonder why communication is failing.

Context is Key

One particularly interesting aspect of dog body language is that context is often the key to reading the cues accurately. Yawning, for example, is another body language cue that people often misinterpret. Sometimes yawning really is expressing sleepiness, but other times it is a reaction to anxiety or anticipation. A dog that is yawning at the vet’s office, for instance, is unlikely to just be saying he is tired. He is almost certainly feeling anxious, and yawning helps him communicate his stress to those who understand his language.

An especially critical time when context is important for interpreting body language is during play. Aggressive actions such as growling, barking and biting at another dog or human could, under normal circumstances, elicit retaliatory aggression. Dog owners are almost universally familiar with the play bow, a body language cue that causes a dog to drop down on his front paws and prop his butt into the air. This signals that any aggressive behaviors that follow the bow are meant as play and should not be taken seriously. Without the play bow, fights might break out instead of games.

Our dogs are talking to us constantly, commenting on their surroundings, expressing their emotions and reading our own words and body cues. They want us to understand them, and by studying how they relate to one another, it is possible to better comprehend their own language so that meaningful communication goes both ways.

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