Did you know that dogs, and other animals, are “conversing” all the time?
Whilst dogs may not speak to us in our language, they communicate loud and clear in their own. As Benjamin Hoff tells us in The Tao of Pooh, "Lots of people talk to animals... Not very many listen though...that's the problem". So, how can we improve our “doggie language”?
Understanding, and responding appropriately to, canine communication is not only very rewarding for your relationship with your dog, and important for your dog’s welfare, but is key to preventing and resolving all manner of problem behaviours too.
First things first: Emotion in domestic dogs - what do we know?
There have been a number of publications over recent years demonstrating emotion in dogs. Alexandra Horowitz (2009) invites us to “go look at a dog”, writing “the first things to forget are anthropomorphisms”… “we see, talk about, and imagine dogs' behavior from a human-biased perspective, imposing our own emotions and thoughts on these furred creatures.” Animals’ emotions are often inferred by humans to be something they might feel. Yet, it is hard not to expect that animals feel the similar variety of emotions that we experience. Humans experience emotional states ranging from optimism to love, hate, wonder, anger, remorse, disappointment, happiness, unhappiness, likes and dislikes, etc., etc., and with the exceptions of “time travelling” emotions, e.g. hope or regret, it seems likely that animals feel – it just remains to be demonstrated. Whilst no one can know another’s mind, and dogs may not experience emotions similarly to humans, it seems impossible that dogs don’t feel emotion. Marc Bekoff (2007) writes “Surely, despite differences, all species must share a similar core of emotions.” Jaak Pansepp (2102) advocates for this too, saying that “under the hat” we [humans and animals] are all the same.
How do dogs communicate?
Dog communication is subtle. They mainly communicate in visual body language signals, which are either used instinctively or deliberately. Body language is a moment-to-moment, outward expression of emotion. Dogs also use vocal and olfactory communication too. Using body language, dogs are able to meet and greet, invite play/closer contact, ask for space, warn off when necessary, etc. thus avoiding conflict. This also allows them to cooperate successfully in a peaceful way in social groups for prolonged periods - i.e. as we do in families. Pet dogs, living in human families, adapt their communication style to read and respond to human body language too! So, even though we communicate very differently, we live successfully with dogs due to their adaptability and skill, and their desire to “get along”.
There's lots more to learn, but now that you know a bit more about how dogs feel and communicate, make things fair on your dog, help them whenever you can and enjoy building on that very special bond together! When your dog learns that you can be relied on to listen to what he is saying and respond, your relationship will grow and his behaviour will naturally improve :-)
For more information on setting your dog up to succeed, or for help turning stressful situations for your dog into easy ones, get in touch - we teach lots of skills to help strengthen the human-dog bond through and resolve problems communication.
Dog Behaviourist, dog trainer