The Importance of Understanding Canine Communication


By: Jessica Brennan, Dr. Boyd's Pet Resort Dog Handler

The key to any productive and stable relationship is good communication. This is especially true in the bond shared between us and our canine companions. Since there is an obvious language barrier between our species, it is our responsibility to bridge this gap by learning how to make detailed observations about our furry friends. We can learn everything we need to know about our pets from evaluating their behavior, their environment, and lastly, the current situation in which they find themselves. Furthermore, in order to conduct a reputable examination, we must also answer the following questions: Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How?

Who? It is important to first acknowledge who the dog is. Like us, every dog is unique. They each have their own personalities and they each have their own quirks. All of which influence not only how they live their day to day lives, but also how they will react in any given situation based on any number of available or surrounding stimuli. Consider, for example, a dog like Fern; a beautiful, red and white, female hound mix who is easily excitable and influenced by the atmosphere of the yard. Having been around Fern for some time now, I know that she not only tends to be more vocal at times of high yard energy, but also that her initial reaction is to hide and isolate herself when she feels overwhelmed or anxious. With that being said, I know that when I’m in the yard with her and I notice her anxiety levels rising, my attention should be focused on not only lowering the energy level of the entire yard, but also making her feel safe and secure without having the desire to hide or isolate herself. One way I approach this situation is by getting her on a leash and walking her, at a leisurely pace, around the yard. I will also sit down at times, with her between my legs, and pet her all over; making sure to focus on rubbing her ears and chest in a slow, gentle manner, and speaking to her in a low, calm voice. Our energy directly affects our pet’s energy. If we are calm, then they will be calm. So a good rule of thumb in controlling their energy levels would be to remember to also control our own.

What? Find out what the situation is and what the dog is reacting to. Each one of the animal’s senses is going to elicit a specific, but very different response. For example, a dog’s response to a savory smell would be to salivate with the expectation that food will shortly be presented. However, a dog’s reaction to an auditory stimulus, like hearing a car pull up in the driveway, could trigger a verbal response (i.e. barking). In addition to recognizing the animal’s sensory response, we must also identify the current situation. Dogs are going to exhibit different behaviors based on different situations. For instance, a puppy who has never been to daycare before may exhibit overly submissive behaviors such as licking another’s dog’s teeth, bowing down or exposing their stomachs to another dog or greeting another dog by swaying or backing up their hind quarters into them. In contrast, a mature or senior-aged dog who has never been socialized before may exhibit more fearful behaviors, including excessively licking their lips, cowering and shaking or even snapping at other dogs when they approach too closely. It is important to remember that in group environments such as daycares, the actions and energy level of one dog directly affects those of every other dog in the yard. So maintaining a calm and relaxing atmosphere where the animals feel safe is crucial.

Where? Find out in what environment the animal is exhibiting that behavior. This is extremely important because different environments can also produce different behaviors. For example, when a dog is within the confines of his own home, his protective instincts activate and he becomes territorial; displaying such behaviors as persistent growling or “cautious” barking at the presence of someone near. However, the same dog placed in a public park settling would most likely exhibit friendly or inviting behaviors including bouncing or hopping around as well as tail wagging and “cheerful” vocalizations, suggesting the dog’s desire to play or at least be playful.

When? Timing is essential. Find out at what time or at what point the dog first exhibited that behavior. Addressing the behavior of excessive lip licking once more, a dog that exhibits this behavior during a daycare evaluation would indicate that he is fearful or anxious from the atmosphere and overwhelmed by the number of dogs in the yard. Whereas, a dog that exhibits this same behavior during a training session would indicate the animal’s processing capabilities. In this instance, when the dog licks his lips excessively, I know that he is making the connection between doing the desired command and receiving the treat for its completion.

Why? Find out why the dog is exhibiting that behavior. Find the stimulus that caused the dog to react in the manner in which he did. In the daycare puppy scenario mentioned previously, the puppy exhibits these submissive behaviors (i.e. licking another’s dog’s teeth, etc) to illustrate not only his obedient and timid nature, but also his eagerness to play and be friendly with the other dogs in the yard.

And finally, How? Find out how the dog is reacting to the situation. We can learn most everything we need to know about a dog from reading his body language. When we are examining a dog’s body language, it is imperative to pay extra close attention to his eye, ear, mouth, tail and hair placement.

For example, subtle signs of a fearful or anxious dog include: -Avoiding eye contact -Ears pushed out and to the side or back and flat against his head -Licking his lips or panting excessively -Hanging his tail down low or tucking it between its legs -Flat hairs on the “heckles” (the area on a dog located not only at the base of the neck that extends through the shoulder blades, but also at the base of the tail) -Cowering or crouching when walking; or pacing

On the other hand, the warning signs of an aggressive dog are indicated as follows: -Focused eye contact -Ears pushed forward, at alert stance -Curled lips and teeth visible -Having his tail stand vertically up and down -Raised hairs on the “hackles” -Standing in one place with stiff posture or stalking in lowered posture

Animals communicate with us on a daily basis, expressing their needs and emotions not in words, but rather by giving off these subtle cues. Since nonverbal cues are essentially their own universal language, we seek them to make interspecies communication easier by allowing us to quickly identify the warning signs that lead to specific behaviors.

It is important to take each of these components into consideration and with every dog, separately, to not only ensure the quality of the observation, but also to avoid making unfriendly assumptions that lead to breed stereotypes. Spending more time getting to know our animal’s habits as well as the essence of what makes them tick, which for most is that infamous T-R-E-A-T word, will ultimately help us to better recognize what their body language is conveying about who they are and what they need. Understanding how a canine communicates will inevitably strengthen the bond we share, bringing us closer together than we ever were before. After all, they don’t call him “Man’s Best Friend” for nothing.