Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Communicating With Your Dog

          There are many reasons to love dogs.  In my opinion one of the most unique things about a dog is the fact that they can communicate with us.  Now I am not talking about the dog that barks out I love you, and no I do not think dogs have the capacity to talk like we humans do.  They do however communicate with us.  It is one of the things that make having a dog such a wonderful experience.  Dogs more so than any other pet have the capacity to let us know what they want.  If you think about it you will realize I am not insane.  How many times has your dog let you know they wanted to go outside, or they wanted to play, or maybe when they needed food?  It is truly amazing when you think about it.  Dogs are one of the only animals that know what it means when a human points.  So not only are they capable of letting us know what they need, and want, as well as what they may be feeling, they have the capacity to understand what we are telling them.
          Dogs use body language more than anything else, we humans use it an awful lot as well.  We can tell how another person is feeling just by the way they hold themselves.  The same is true for dogs.  Many people think that there is some special gift to be able to read a dog, when in reality all you need is a little knowledge and some experience.  There are people who don’t even notice when a dog is trying to communicate, much less what they are trying to say.  At this point I would caution not to project human behavior onto any dog.  Yes they can communicate, but they are still dogs and live in a totally different reality than we do, but that is a subject for another article.  That being said, if you do enough research and you watch your dog closely, you will be able to see more than the standard let’s play or I need food signs that your dog may be tossing your way.
          Most people assume when they see a dogs tail wagging that the dog is happy, but if you look closer at the dog you will find that this is not always the case.  For example, if the head is hung low, and the ears are back, and the tail is wagging, clearly the dog is not happy, it is more nervous or anxious.  This could be due to being in a new situation, or around people the dog is not familiar with, the ears back tend to show nervousness and fear, the head hung low is a submissive posture that lets everyone around the dog know that they are not a threat.  The tail wagging in this case would show nervousness.  Now let’s assume we have an aggressive dog in the same situation.  The dog is in a place he is not familiar with around people he does not know, but instead of a low hanging head and ears back, this dog has his ears straight back, his head is up, his teeth are bared, the hair along his back is up, and his tail is wagging.  If you see a dog like this I would not stick around.  This dog is letting everyone who can see him know that he is fearful to the point of attack if needed.  The ears back and teeth bared are a warning to back off, the hair up along his back is showing extreme nervousness, and the tail wagging is a way to let everyone know he is unsure of what he should do next. 
          The above situations are two examples of how a dog may react to a crowd of strange people.  The signs are all there, one dog is no threat, and the other is.  Thankfully it is easy to spot a dog that is ready to bite, at least it is for most people.  Some of the other things to look for when trying to “read” your dog would be, the dogs posture, is the head up or down, up usually means confidence, head down is a submissive gesture, when a dog lowers its head to you, it usually means they are trying to let you know they are not a threat.  Tail up, down, between the legs, these three are good indicators as to your dog’s mood.  Tail up means confident, dominant. Tail down means calm, submissive.  A tail between the legs means fear and anxiety.  Ears are another good thing to look at when you are looking for clues to what your dog may be trying to say.  Ears up and forward usually mean the dog is curious about something or has heard something that they are trying to get a better read on.  Ears back are usually a bad sign.  Ears back often mean fear or aggression, which makes sense; aggression will often follow fear in almost every living thing on this planet.  A very old small green man once said fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate…  Very wise words for a little green man.   Barks and growls are another, often misread, way a dog will communicate.  When a dog barks or growls it is usually in some kind of context, such as playfulness, an alert to let you know someone is at the door, or a warning.  It depends what the rest of the dogs body is doing as to what the growl or bark means.   I hope some of these things will help you figure out what may be going on in your dog’s head. 
          I have been reading dogs all my life and have gotten pretty good at it.  You will find after a while of trying you will not even need to think about it.  Before long you will be communicating with your dog.  As for how a dog knows what you are saying.  Think body language.   If you are angry a dog will know it, if you are nervous, scared, happy, your dog will know it.  So it is more important that we know how to read our dogs, because they can already read us.  The better you are at knowing what your dog is feeling and needing the better you can take care of them.  This will go a long way to keeping your furry family members healthy and happy.  

Nick Carreno

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