Dog behaviour

Mastering dog communication is essential if you own a dog. It becomes even more so if you are a dog trainer or behaviourist. It can help you solve many of the problems presented by our clients. Introducing the dog owner to the basic and the most important signals in dog communication and the proper ways of reacting to them, it is very often possible to help avoid conflicts and unpleasant situations arising in human-to-dog and dog-to-dog relations.

Communicating with a dog

Communication involves transferring pieces of information from one individual to another. It can happen through the use of sounds (i.e. through vocalisation), smells (olfactory signals), and body language (visual signals). It often involves a combination of these three channels. Dogs communicate with humans in the same way as they do with other members of their own species, directly related to the thousands of years of their domestication. However, communication with dogs can be quite complicated because their signals can be very subtle and are easily missed. Moreover, dog owners often don’t realise how our human signals differ from those sent by dogs. Yet, it is worth encouraging people to observe the dogs’ behaviour and watch how they communicate with each other. This will let them become better ‘conversation’ partners and show their dogs that they are understood. It will give the dog owners a chance to gain their dogs’ trust and make them feel more comfortable in their presence.

Kinds of signals sent by dogs

The signals sent by dogs can be divided into agonistic signals (aimed at increasing or maintaining distance), stress, fear and de-escalation signals (often described as dog-calming signals), demonstrative signals and social contact signals (affiliative signals). Within each of these groups, there are many kinds of behaviour and many details to pay attention to when interpreting a given situation and a given message. It is also worth remembering that the signals from these groups can also intermingle in certain ways, and it all depends on the emotional state of the animal and its intentions in a given situation.

What are the most important signals in dog communication?

It is very difficult to isolate the most important signals in dog communication. As I mentioned above, a dog tries to communicate its intentions often through a combination of different signals. I think it would be useful to list some of the basic types of behaviour that dog owners should be aware of, but which are often ignored or misinterpreted by people.

How do we help dog owners understand their dogs’ communication?

In addition to the theory and presenting the dog owners with basic information on dog communication, it is advisable to explore these issues in practice. A very good solution is to ask the dog owners to record and send videos of their dog(s)’ various interactions. This allows us to analyse these videos frame by frame and highlight some important elements. We can also record the dog during the consultation session and then watch the video with the client in slow motion. Such analyses give very nice results – we can show the owner right away how to react in a given situation to make their dog feel better. The same should be done with your own dog – recording interactions is a great source of information. Unfortunately, watching the interaction ‘on the fly’, we can easily miss a lot, and the details can be only noticed by watching it again.

A lot of basic information about dog communication has been provided by Turid Rugaas in her book On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals. While this book isn’t perhaps the source of ultimate knowledge, as canine communication is a much deeper subject, and it is currently much better understood, it still presents almost 30 basic canine communication signals and is written in quite simple and accessible language. Therefore, it might be a good starter to recommend to a client wanting to learn more.

How to read dog signals even better? Becoming an expert in dog communication requires years of experience, a huge number of dogs met, and lots of interactions watched and analysed. It is worth reading the latest studies and obtaining knowledge from people with some experience in this area, who, for example, can point out lots of details in the dog’s body language by presenting videos of various interactions. There are also many courses and meetings on dog communication, where you can meet many dogs and discuss the interactions ‘on the go’. There are also webinars that provide frame-by-frame video analyses of interactions, using videos from dog encounters or from regular walks. There are also several such items available at Wojtków Szkolenia , which I highly recommend: Analiza Komunikacji Psów, Psie Spotkania – Analiza Psiej Komunikacji, and Zabawa czy Rywalizacja – Analiza Psiej Komunikacji część 3 .

Share Facebook