Learning to Speak Dog

Cosmo is not a happy camper

When I first started training dogs, I'll admit that I was pretty ignorant about how to communicate with them.  Like many long-time dog owners and lovers, I *thought* I was pretty savvy about understanding their language.  I could read what they were telling me to some extent.  If a dog's tongue was hanging out of his mouth while his butt danced the jig, I knew I was looking at a friendly dog.  If he held himself crouched on the ground and his tail was tucked, that told me the dog was frightened.   That's pretty basic stuff.

Though I still had a lot to learn about reading dogs, it was being able to talk back to them in their own language that was my biggest weak spot.  After all, we all know that when one speaks to a stranger, it's impolite if you don't establish eye contact, right?  Well, right for humans.  Very, very wrong for dogs. 

Speaking Dog 101

My first journey into the study of Dog Speak came as a result of Turid Rugaas' little book, "Calming Signals: On Talking Terms with Dogs."  This book should be considered a primer on learning how to speak to dogs in their own language, and mandatory reading for anybody in a field that requires working with them.  It is very simple and basic, but profound in the way it teaches us humans that not only do dogs have their own subtle way of communicating, but in many ways it conflicts with what we accept as the norm.

For example, I mentioned that humans are taught that avoiding direct eye contact when meeting a stranger is impolite.  (Note:  I know that's not true in all societies, but it is here in the U.S. and many other countries)  In the dog's world, it's exactly the opposite.  Polite dogs avoid direct eye contact, or allow it only briefly and then look away.  A direct look into a strange dog's eyes can be perceived as a social gaffe, and staring is often considered to be a challenge.  We may not have picked this up since dogs are very, very good at learning *our* (physical) language, and most family pets know that staring soulfully into their humans' eyes is not only safe but welcomed and enjoyed.  They learn to come and stare at us when they want attention from us, and also learn that the same message is being given when we stare at them. 

But if you watch socially mature dogs approach each other (not puppies - they usually have no manners!), they normally will not lock eyes.  Even when they know and trust each other, you're not going to catch dogs staring at each other unless there is a problem brewing.  I've had several students tell me that their dogs are reactive to only some other dogs, not others, and that they can't tell what it is about these certain dogs that set them off.  In most cases when I ask them to watch both dogs' eyes to determine if it has anything to do with eye contact, they come back to tell me that's exactly what their dog is reacting to - a strange dog who looks them directly in the eye!

This can result in inherent problems between some dogs of different breeds.  Border collies were bred to stare, though many well-socialized dogs of that breed learn when it's appropriate to give another dog eye contact and when it's not.  German shepherds seem to be one of the breeds that are the most strict about the "no eye contact" rule though, again, certain individuals learn to compromise.  But I am hyper-aware when I watch a BC and a GSD approach each other for the first time, because it can be a recipe for instant disaster.  They are operating with conflicting social rules. 

A lot of flat-faced dogs also seem to have not gotten the memo about eye contact.  I am convinced that the reason boxers sometimes have the reputation for becoming dog-reactive as they mature is related to the eye contact rule.  When they are puppies, they are allowed to approach older dogs head-on with their big-eyed stares, because puppies get a special "license" to be rude.  But as they reach adolescence and beyond, and their "puppy license" has expired, the same approach is met with a correction from many dogs - perhaps a growl or an air-snap.  The confused and misunderstood boxer can become defensive if this happens too often.  (Note: Humans can help here by teaching their staring dogs to look away - but that's the subject of a different blog. :}

Another simple yet profound rule of communication that Turid Rugaas talks about in her book is the way that dogs approach each other.  Again, a silly puppy may run straight up to another dog in greeting.  Mature dogs may, too, once they know and trust the other dog as a safe play-mate.  But the polite way for one dog to approach another is not directly, but in an arc.  If you watch socially savvy dogs who meet each other for the first time, they will walk to each others' sides and arc around.  This is why when two dogs meet on leash, the leash often gets tangled around both dogs.  Just like direct eye contact, a direct approach can be perceived as a challenge.  When two dogs are coming together to fight, they will lock eyes and approach head-on.  When it's play, they usually do a glance, look away, and arc towards each other. 

Hey, This Stuff Works!

One day soon after reading this book, I was walking down an aisle in PetSmart, turned a corner, and suddenly came upon a dog facing me at the end of that aisle.  We startled each other.  The dog looked up at me in a crouched position, holding himself very still (not good signs!).  Remembering what I had learned, I turned my head away, arced my body away from him as I was walking instead of facing him directly, and when I glanced back - he had the goofy tongue, wiggly butt thing going on!  That was a lesson I never forgot.

Not long afterwards I met a couple with a min pin on leash.  When I approached them, the first thing they did was call out, "Don't try to touch him, he bites!" 

Now taking into account several things that I had read in Ms. Rugaas' amazing little book, I sat on the floor, turned away from the dog, and engaged the owners in a calm conversation.  Once they relaxed, I started rolling treats in the little dog's direction on the floor.  As we chatted, I started rolling them closer and closer to me, and eventually had him eating them out of the palm of my hand resting on the floor.   Then I just started moving my hand in closer to my body until it was resting on my leg.  After about 5 minutes of this, he crawled into my lap, snuggled in, and gave me a kiss.  His owners were amazed.  I spoke to them about direct eye contact, approaching a dog head-on, and especially for the little ones, leaning over them - something most well-meaning people who wanted to meet the little guy would do.  "It's probably just the first time a stranger spoke his language," I said.

Education is Key

Now when it comes to learning how to speak Dog, consider the above the equivalent of a first semester in a language class.  There is much more to it, and all of it fascinating.  Brenda Aloff wrote a marvelous book called Canine Body Language, a Photographic Guide that expands on a lot of what is in Turid Rugaas' book and also illustrates it with photographs.   So much of it is very subtle, such as the set of a dog's jaw or tension in the ears, and yet speaks volumes about what the dog is feeling. 

In my opinion, classes on Speaking Dog should be given in every grammar school, and certainly to all expectant parents who own or may someday own dogs.  Every time we read a story about a dog who bit a child "out of nowhere," trainers shudder because we know that there is no such thing.  That dog may have turned his head, tightened his jaw, tucked his tail, and otherwise given many signals to say "stop, that really bothers me" before he escalated to a bite.  Or he may have even given the child a direct, hard-eyed stare or lifted his lip, another even stronger warning that boundaries were being crossed.  In any case, many, many bites could be prevented if more people learned how to understand the language of these wonderful animals who, for the most part, tolerate our ignorance with infinite patience and forgiveness.