Friday, July 1, 2011

Dog Communication

One of the main ways that dogs communicate with each other, as well as with humans, is through body language.  It's a language that can impart many concepts and emotions, but if humans don't learn to understand it, we can often miss what a dog is trying to tell us.  There are many books and websites that deal with the subject, so I won't bore you with details.  But here is an example of dog body language that we think means one thing and it often means something else:

A dog rolls onto his side and lifts his rear leg as if asking for a belly rub.  If this is a dog that knows you and/or loves belly rubs, that could be precisely what he's saying.  But if it's a dog you don't know well or that you're meeting for the first time, what he may be actually saying is "I'm smaller than you and I don't mean any harm, please don't hurt me."  Unfortunately we often respond to this message by walking straight up to the dog and rubbing their belly, when the polite thing to do is to look away, maybe bend down to make yourself smaller, and encourage the dog with high pitched happy talk that you mean him no harm.  By looming over him and reaching out and touching him you're simply reinforcing to him that you're bigger and meaner than he is, thus scaring him further!  If you wait to pet him until he gets up and comes to you, then you'll have one very happy dog, because you understood him and responded appropriately.  

I took this short video of my foster dogs playing, and it's amazing to see all of the body language that they use to communicate:

What did you see?  I saw some play bows (where a dog bends down on his front legs to communicate he wants to play), some "look aways" (a dog looks away to communicate he means no threat), and at one point, Roxy the brindle pit bull had her hackles raised (hair on the back of her neck stood up).  That was a sign she was too excited and the other dogs sensed it and backed away so it didn't escalate into a fight.  These signs happen so quickly that it's hard to catch in the act!  But note that two of these three dogs are deaf.  Do you think that made any difference in how they communicate? 

I often have luck communicating to a dog that they need to do something (or stop doing something) by whether I look directly at them or look away, move toward them or away, and so on.  I think fostering deaf dogs has helped me to communicate better with hearing dogs as well, because I have learned to rely more on body language which is the natural communication method of dogs.  Do you use body language to communicate with your dogs?

By the way, sometimes deaf dogs also use verbal communication, such as growls or barks, to communicate even though they can't hear.  This photo was taken during the above play session.  I think Ziggy's bark certainly got Roxy's attention!


Pibble said...

Great post!

It's so important for people to be able to "read" a dog. They don't have to be experts to the point where they can predict a dog's next move, but understanding just a few things (like a wagging tail doesn't necessarily mean a happy dog) could save someone from being injured.

By the way - I love Roxy's face in that last picture! Yeah, I'd say Ziggy got her attention!

Cupcake said...

I love the video. I saw Bunny, I hope one day she is running around the yard, carefree and having fun.

Your place is so fun!!

Cyndi and Stumpy said...

The ability to "read" a dog, and respond appropropriately definitely makes a huge difference in any dogs life. I've got to think that living with a deaf dog (s) fine tunes your "reading" ability!

The last picture is priceless!

Happy, Waggin' Tails, FUREVER!
Stumpy and me

Michelle said...

To see a great article (and poster!) on the body language of fear in dogs, go to

Black Dog Mom said...

Good video of dog body language. I also noticed the shep mix putting her head over the pits' back at the very end of the video. I have heard that this usually means they are trying to show dominance over another dog.

Kari in WeHo said...

I have read a lot of books about dog body language and I know I still have so much more to learn!


Teal'c said...

Hi there! Nice post... My mum can get quite angry with dog owners that can't read their dogs body language. We think you should pick up on your dogs basic moods and when you can tell that he or she isn't comfortable with the situation then do something about it. But lot's of hoomans just stand around in the park not even watching their dogs, at least over here in Australia that seems to be common practice. :(
Slobbers Master T.

Stefanie said...

I have so much to learn. I just took in a second foster dog and she is much better at reading my 1st foster than I am so I find myself watching foster #2 to find out what foster #1 is thinking. Foster #1 (aka Scarlett) is very hard to read, she is unlike any dog I've ever known - probably due to her background. So foster #2 (aka Nikki) is very helpful to me! As a dog owner or caretaker, I understand how important it is to continually learn and educate myself when it comes to dogs and how to keep them healthy mentally and physically.