Your dog is learning to be bilingual – are you?
Why learning to understand and speak your dog’s language is so important
Communication is a two-way street
Communication is a process which involves a system of signalling between senders and receivers. Each signal is specifically designed to carry a particular piece of information from the signaller to the intended recipient, such that the latter responds in a particular way.
We humans typically spend a lot of time ‘training’ our dogs to understand what we want them to do. We ‘teach’ them that when we send a specific human communication signal to them, such as a showing a certain hand signal, saying a verbal cue (such as ‘stay’ or ‘come’), or blowing a whistle, we are asking for a particular behaviour from them in return. Developing a communication system through which our dogs can clearly understand our human signals can of course be very helpful for both parties, and indeed essential for safety in certain situations, however we must be careful not to focus only on one side of the conversation.
Dogs have their own needs, wants, and ways of perceiving the world, they experience their own emotional and physical states, and crucially have their own ways of communicating about all of these things using specific dog communication signals. Sadly, all too often these signals are not noticed, are ignored or are misinterpreted by humans who have not taken the time to learn how dogs communicate. If we do not understand the signals our dogs are sending to us, to other people and to other dogs, we will fail to respond in the ways our dogs expect and need us to. Our inability to take appropriate action can lead to our dogs becoming confused, frustrated, stressed, anxious and frightened, and potentially place not only our dogs, but ourselves, other people and other dogs, in physical and emotional danger.
Two different species, two different languages
Both humans and dogs are social species, and as such both species have evolved their own rich vocabularies with which to communicate with their own kind.
Humans are primarily a verbal species, using vocal communication as the main means of establishing understanding and continuing a conversation when in the presence of another human.
Dogs are amazing pupils, and can learn to understand a lot of human signals, but they do not speak English, Italian, Polish, Japanese or any other verbal human language.
Your dog isn’t being disobedient, they don’t understand you
Your dog has heard someone approaching the front door and starts barking, you shout ‘be quiet’ and your dog carries on barking, you shout ‘be quiet’ again and your dog carries on barking.
Your dog doesn’t know what the words ‘be quiet’ mean, they just hear you sounding aroused and making a noise too.
From their perspective it might sound like you’re joining-in with the barking, which just encourages them to bark more!
The doggy dictionary
Whilst dogs use some vocalisations to communicate, they primarily use a wide array of visual signals such as facial expressions and body postures, to understand and converse both with one another, and with us.
Dogs send visual signals using their:
Mouth and teeth
Dogs position and move all of these face and body parts in different ways to communicate different meanings to the recipients of their communication.
Stringing words into sentences
Fully understanding what one visual signal means however is reliant on observing which other signals are being presented at the same time, as well as the environmental context in which all of the signals are being displayed.
A common misconception is that a wagging tail means that the dog is happy. Sometimes this is true, but sometimes it can mean quite the opposite! Dogs may wag their tails when they are happy, uncertain, frustrated, aroused or over-stimulated. The way the tail is wagging gives an indication of the way the dog is feeling, but to be more certain of the precise meaning of the wag, we need to look at the bigger picture.
We’ve arrived home to our family dog, her face and body look soft and relaxed, she is wiggling her bottom and her tail is wagging quickly side-to-side or around and around like a helicopter = HAPPY dog, safe to approach.
We’ve wondered onto a farmyard during a country walk, there is a dog on the yard, his tail is wagging quickly side-to-side, but his face and body look tense and stiff, his eyes are wide and staring and he is barking = OVER-AROUSED dog, may be dangerous if approached.
Some dogs can be harder to ‘read’ than others
The physical characteristics of some dogs mean that their visual signals can go unseen or be misinterpreted. If a dog has long hair on his face that covers his eyes, other dogs and people cannot see whether his eyes are soft, staring, blinking or have dilated pupils. Or if a dog has a tail that naturally curls tightly over her back, she may appear confident and aroused, even when she is feeling nervous
Some dogs use fewer signals to communicate how they are feeling. Where one individual might communicate his anxiety about having his bottom sniffed by an unfamiliar dog by clamping his tail down, rounding his back, turning his body away, holding his ears back and down, looking at the other dog out of the side of his eye and flashing his teeth; another individual who feels equally nervous might just stand still with her mouth closed, holding her breath.
Reading facial expressions and body language is not an alien concept to humans, after all we use these types of visual signals when communicating with other people. We must however be careful not to try and understand dogs as if they are humans. It is all too easy to look at a dog’s appearance and behaviour and attribute human feelings, needs and motivations to them, but doing so can have damaging and even dangerous consequences.
Misinterpretation harms your dog’s well-being and your relationship with them
You’re meeting your friend for a drink, you shut Rover in the kitchen at home whilst you go out. Rover can smell some irresistible aromas emanating from the bin, he puts his feet up on it, leans on it and nudges the lid with his nose, eventually it topples over, woohoo! Out spills yesterday’s roast chicken carcass and Rover enjoys a tasty snack.
You get home with your friend, you see and smell the messy, stinky contents of the bin all over the floor, and start panicking about whether there was anything dangerous in there. Rover bounces happily out of his crate to see you but you’re angry about the mess, worried about what he might have eaten, and you start yelling at him, grab him by the collar and turf him out into the garden, slamming the door behind you whilst you go in to clean up the mess.
Fast forward a couple of weeks and you’re meeting your friend for a drink again. You leave Rover in the kitchen whilst you’re out and when you come home with your friend, you can’t believe your eyes, the bin’s contents are all over the floor again. You look around for Rover and see him laying stiffly at the back of his crate, his head is turned slightly away but he’s looking at you with big ‘sorry-looking’ eyes. ‘Look, he knows he’s done wrong!’ you say to your friend as you start getting angry again, ‘look at that guilty expression!’
STOP! You’re misinterpreting Rover’s communication. He’s not feeling ‘guilty’. Why would he? He doesn’t know that helping himself to a snack out of the bin isn’t ok. He’s feeling anxious about what you are going to do when you enter the room. Last time you left him for a few hours in the kitchen and came home with your friend, you shouted at him, roughly pulled him outside by the collar, slammed the door loudly and left him in the garden in the rain. The context means that he is anticipating that you might show threatening behaviour towards him again. By keeping still he hopes not to attract your attention, by turning his head away he is trying to pacify you by avoiding a confrontational face-on position, but he is keeping his wide-open eyes looking at you so that he can see everything you are doing, so he can react quickly if he needs to if you start to threaten him again.
It’s YOU who should 'know you've done wrong’. You left irresistible food in the bin - food is a basic need for dogs and most will be very motivated to access it, and you who frightened Rover with your behaviour when you came home to the upturned bin the first time. He had no idea why you yelled at him, yanked him uncomfortably by the collar, banged the door and left him outside in the cold alone. You have damaged the trust between you, and given Rover reason to feel anxious.
Misinterpretation increases bite risk
Research testing the ability of young children to interpret dog facial expressions, found that a quarter of 6 year olds, over a third of 5 year olds and nearly three-quarters of 4 year olds, thought that the image of a dog showing an aggressive display of barred teeth was a happy, smiling dog.
By interpreting a dog’s face in the same way as they would a human’s, young children may then make the mistake of trying to approach and / or pet the dog, because they have not understood that the meaning of the dog’s teeth display is ‘I feel threatened by you, stay away from me, these are my weapons, I will use them if you keep approaching me’. This lack of understanding about the way in which dogs communicate differently from humans places young children at an increased risk of being bitten.
Learn to ‘talk’ as well as ‘listen’ like a dog
If we can learn to understand what our dogs are asking for when they send different dog communication signals, not only can we learn how to respond appropriately to their requests, we can also learn how to use our dogs’ signals to communicate our intentions in ways that they will find easy to understand, whilst also being mindful not to accidentally use signals that our dogs might find intimidating.
‘I’m not a threat’
It’s the first time that you’re going over to your new friend’s house. They’ve told you they have a dog who’s nervous of strangers who will probably avoid you when you come around. You arrive at your friend’s house and they take you through to the living room. Their dog Missy is laying on her bed on the other side of the room. She’s very quiet and very still, apart from her eyes which follow you intently as you move around the room.
You decide you want to make friends with Missy from the outset so that she knows you’re not a threat. You start to walk directly towards her, you’re eyes on her eyes, repeating the words ‘Hello Missy, don’t worry, I’m a friend, I won’t hurt you’. You remember you’ve got some of your own dog’s treats in your pocket and you take one out. As you get close to Missy you lean down and reach out your hand down to her to offer the treat. STOP!
Everything about the above approach to Missy tells her that you ARE a threat! She was clearly communicating that she did not want to engage with you, she was keeping her distance from you and staying very still so as to discourage you from approaching. Despite this you kept moving closer to her – your head-on face and body posture looked bold and assertive. You held eye contact with her - she felt she couldn’t move. You were talking to her in a strange, high-pitched repetitive way using words she doesn’t understand - she’s unsure of your intentions. You stood over her - she feels trapped. You reached out your hand – she doesn’t know what that hand’s going to do, she might get hurt!
REWIND! This time you enter the room and see Missy laying on her bed by the opposite wall. You can see she’s not all that comfortable with you being there. She’s keeping still and quiet and watching you carefully. You keep your distance, look away from her and turn your body side on to her position as you sit down on the sofa furthest away from her, whilst continuing to chat casually to your friend. Everything about this approach communicates to Missy that you are NOT a threat. You are not focussing any attention on her, your body language is unintimidating, you are giving her space to go wherever she wants, and you are interacting in a relaxed, ‘normal’ way with her owner. Now it’s up to Missy to decide if / when she wants to approach you and make friends.
It’s time we all took language lessons
If we fail to understand what are dog’s communication signals mean, we are more likely to do things that compromise their well-being, damage our relationship with them and potentially even put our dog, ourselves and others in danger.
If, however, we take action right now to put as much time and effort into learning how to understand and use our dogs’ language, as we do into ‘training’ our dog’s to understand ours, we have a wonderful opportunity to develop genuine two-way communication with our dogs, and in so doing, build a rich relationship of mutual understanding, trust and respect for a happy, safe and rewarding life together.
Resources to help you learn more about dog communication
‘Clever Dog – Understand What Your Dog Is Telling You’ by Sarah Whitehead
‘Tail Talk – Understanding The Secret Language of Dogs’ by Sophie Collins
‘Canine Body Language’ from Victoria Stillwell’s ‘Positively’ website
‘How to communicate with a dog in his own language’ by Kikopup https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MgnLgHFRJu4&t=6s
‘Reading Your Dog's Body Language When Training’ by Kikopup
‘Learn To Talk Dog’ from Sarah Whitehead
Course 1. Canine Body Language and Facial Expression
Course 2. Understanding Dog-To-Dog Communications