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.
- Distance requests – it is a series of signals by which the dog shows that it is not comfortable in a certain situation and asks you not to approach it or to move away. For example, we can include here signals such as turning the head away, avoiding eye contact, squinting, licking the nose and flews as a signal of stress, freezing, yawning, and flattening the ears. All such signals are often exhibited, for example, by dogs when being cuddled. Many unpleasant incidents occur when these signals are ignored – dogs sometimes feel that the only way out is to show aggressive signals when the more subtle ones have not been respected. This can include growling, showing teeth, barking or snapping teeth. These situations occur both in dog-to-dog and human-to-dog interactions. It is therefore worth reading and respecting the subtle communication so that the dog is not forced to send more blunt signals and simply feels better.
- ” The Bow” – when many dog people see such behaviour, i.e. elbows on the ground with the rear end up, they associate it with encouragement to play and with a positive, cheerful attitude towards another individual. However, this signal is often mistaken for an attempt to move a dog or other disturbing object. This does not deny the possibility of the so-called ‘play bow’, but these behaviours are slightly different and can be distinguished by careful observation of the dog. This way, we can discern the intentions of a ‘bowing’ dog in a given interaction. The bow intending to push the other individual away is stiffer and more compact, with the paws closer together and the body rather tense. The playful bow, on the other hand, is accompanied by a relaxed body and wide-spread paws. It is worth bearing in mind that such a bow is rather rare when dogs meet for the first time.
- The eyes will tell you the truth – A dog’s eyes can really tell you a lot. A skilled observer of the dog communication will be able to distinguish, for instance, a hard look from a soft one and thus better assess the dog’s intentions. Dog’s eyes often show where it would like to go. It shows its owner the direction in which it is best to go to make it feel better. Dog’s eyes can show fear and an attempt to deescalate a situation when it turns them away. They can also show terror and great discomfort. In such a situation, we can see the whites of the dog’s eyeballs. Let’s remember, therefore, to watch the dog’s eyes – we will find a lot of information there.
- Details to look for in play Do dogs play? – This is a very common question from dog owners who want to make sure their dog is comfortable in a certain situation. So, what details should we pay attention to in order to better assess whether an interaction is dog play? First of all, the bodies of playing dogs should be loose and ‘soft’. There should be a visible balance in the interaction – first one dog chases, then the other, first one lies on its back, and then the other. If one dog stops, the other also does. If one dog is physically stronger, it very often gives the weaker one a ‘head start’. It pretends to be a bit weaker to even out the odds. What’s more, it’s worth remembering that dogs who have only just met are unlikely to start playing right away – a bit like humans. They need to get to know each other a little better first.
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 .