Learn your dog's body language and communication

N.H. Sunday News - Dog Tracks Column - 5/9/10
By: Gail T. Fisher

An all-too-common scenario we hear described during a behavioral consultation goes: “My dog was chewing something and when I reached toward her to take it away, **(ital)without any warning**, she snapped and bit my hand.” The resulting feelings when an owner is bitten by their own dog is a feeling of betrayal (“How could she do this to me?!”), mistrust and nervousness (“She gave no warning!”) and finally, they think it was the dog’s fault.

Regular readers know my thoughts about blaming the dog. Even in this scenario, it isn’t the dog’s fault. Dogs rarely react “without warning.” Rather, they communicate through subtle body language and facial expressions. These are easily recognizable signals that broadcast the dog’s feelings and intentions—once we know how to decipher the code and respond appropriately. Reading our dogs are saying and paying attention to their communication enables us to avoid misunderstanding and conflict. From the dog’s perspective, conflict avoidance is what it’s all about: Achieving peace before an encounter escalates to the point of no return.

Some facial signals that serve to diffuse discord include avoiding eye contact, looking or turning away, yawning and lip licking. Not all signals involve body language. Sometimes communication is through behaviors such as standing still, sniffing the ground, shaking (as in drying off, not trembling), or even urinating. And then there are movement signals such as moving slowly or curving to approach at an angle rather than straight on. These are all “calming signals” designed to communicate pacifism and to diffuse anger.

The profound differences between human and dog communication can lead to tremendous misunderstandings. We often misinterpret our dogs’ actions. The result is that we blame the dog for what we see as misbehavior, when in reality it was the dog’s attempt to calm us down. A common situation most dog owners have experienced is the frustration of calling your dog and having him take his own sweet time in coming. Here’s how it may play out:

You call your dog. He hears you, but doesn’t respond immediately. You call again, this time a bit louder and sharper, expressing mild annoyance. Still no response, you call yet again, this time communicating exasperation. After all, he knows what “come” means; you’re late for work, and have to get him in the house so you can leave.

Hearing the annoyance in your voice, your dog tries to diffuse your frustration through universally understood (by dogs) movement that means “Don’t be concerned—I’m OK.” He approaches at a measured (not hurried) pace, arcing in a wide curve. This slow, indirect approach fuels your anger. Now steamed, you holler, “Get in here ... darn it!!”

Your dog’s natural reaction to your anger is conflict avoidance: “I have to calm Mom/Dad down.” So in addition to the curving approach, he slows even more. He shakes his coat. He stops to sniff the bushes. Then he urinates. Now furious, it takes all your self-control to keep from hauling him into the house.

Paradoxically, the angrier we get, the more the dog is compelled to diffuse our wrath with calming signals that serve only to make us even more furious. The answer: We need to get the dog’s message—to learn and recognize what our dog’s signals are communicating to us so we can respond appropriately. Mutually understood communication can take our relationships with our dogs to even greater heights—a win-win for both species!

To learn more about dog body language, including the subtle signals your dog sends you on a regular basis as well as how to use your own body language to communicate with your dog, join me this Tuesday, May 11th at All Dogs Gym from 7:00-8:30 p.m. for a free workshop on “Body Language and Canine Communication.” Space is limited, so call or email to reserve your spot. Click here for more information.

Copyright © Gail T. Fisher, 2010. All rights reserved. http://www.alldogsgym.com For permission to reprint this article or suggestions for future topics, please contact us.