Can You Speak Dog?

March 1 2016

Recently I was speaking at an event and I asked the audience if they could tell me how dogs communicate. As I listened, it became apparent to them that there are two basic methods of "canine speak"-- body language and vocalizations.

Body language includes: jumping, nipping, licking, tail wagging, biting, use of the head including, ears, eyes and mouth and various other posturing during which your dog uses his entire body.

Vocalization includes: barking, growling, whining, howling and other miscellaneous sounds.

Know that each posture means something. When your dog wants to play, he'll get into a play stance, which I'm sure you have seen. His front end is low, rear end is up and wiggling and his tail is wagging. If he is approached by another dog, that dog will recognize the stance immediately and if he's feeling playful too he might mirror the stance and the games begin.

Each vocalization means something also. Your dog, when startled, might bark or growl to express his discomfort.

Which is the more important aspect of his communication? Body language is, without a doubt. Body language is your dog's primary way of communicating with you and other dogs. Even if he's vocalizing, he's backing up the message with his body language. If he doesn't want to play with the other dog, he will stand as tall and stiff as he can get, and his tail may slowly be waving like a warning flag. Hopefully the other dog recognizes the signals and decides that it might not be a good time to play.

When we work with our clients, we spend part of the time educating them about canine communication and what some of it means. Why? In order to communicate clearly and easily with anyone you have to know the language. Dogs don't speak English, French or any other human language -- they speak dog. They can learn to associate words with actions such as come, sit, stay, down, etc. but if we use our body language, in a canine way, to match our message the process is sped up.

Let me give you an example. Let's say my dog and I visit a dog park (which sometimes can be dangerous). I walked into the middle of the park and just lowered my height and excitedly tapped my leg. Five dogs immediately started to come towards me. I stood up straight and stiffened my posture, almost at attention, and every one of the dogs stopped. I lowered my height again and they came. I didn't utter a word. I only used my body language and they understood. Try it with your dog and see what happens.

It's human nature that most people call their dogs while standing straight and tall. If your dog doesn't come, you call louder and sterner. Your body language and vocal tones aren't matching your message from a canine perspective. By lowering your height, you are more closely matching the inviting play posture.

Add a happy, excited "come" and your vocal message will match your body language and your dog will have a much better chance at understanding what you want.

When you learn to communicate clearly, in a canine way, your dog has a better chance of understanding your message. When he understands, he'll be more likely to respond correctly. When he responds correctly he'll get praised.

When he gets praised he gets happy. We know the rest of the story -- happy dogs = happy families!

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