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PetPourri: Something to Wag About – Speaking Your Pet’s Language

By Hana Haatainen Caye

Did you ever notice how some individuals just seem to connect with their dogs? We call them “dog people” and write them off as having skills outside the norm. Their dogs are content, happy and well behaved. On the other side of the spectrum, some dog owners just don’t have the knack. Their dogs are nervous, aggressive, incessant barkers and jumpers – in short, dogs you don’t want to be around. Just like with failed relationships between people, the problem often lies in communication, or lack thereof. So how can we learn to better “talk” with our beloved canines?


The first step in any kind of effective animal interaction is observation. We can’t expect to communicate unless we know what type of conduct our dogs exhibit on a daily basis. Once we have a grasp on their typical behavior, we can begin to assess ways to connect with them.

As with humans, each dog is unique. A Doberman’s ear twitch might not mean the same thing as a Husky’s. While it’s important to learn about general body language signals and common canine vocal communications, nothing takes the place of simply watching and listening to your companion. Take the time to observe your dog in various everyday situations and scenarios. What happens to his posture when he meets someone new? What do his different barks and vocalizations mean? What is he trying to tell you when he places his paw upon your knee?

Find the connections between body language, voice, behavior and stimuli, and try to document your observations in a journal to help identify patterns in your dog’s behavior. Why is this period of observation so important? By knowing your dog’s signals, you will be able to spot trouble before it gets out of hand. Your pup desperately wants to communicate with you and nothing will validate him more than having you recognize what he’s trying to say. Just as you expect your dog to understand your human words, he expects you to understand his communication as well.


While it’s important to understand how and why dogs communicate, we should also be aware of how our dogs interpret our own human body language. Put yourself in their paws and think about the messages you’re sending to help keep the lines of communication operating smoothly.

Your dog will learn to respond to your signals, so it’s essential to remember that angry behavior will only breed fear and insecurity. Raising your voice around your dog or approaching with a rolled up newspaper will likely hinder obedience and may even result in aggression. Pavlov proved that canines respond to stimuli, so keep your messages consistent and clear. Dogs key into repetition. If you get angry every time you receive a phone call, your dog will cower whenever the phone rings. Let your hands and voice be sources of comfort, not distress, and use them to help convince your pet that he’s loved by all and living in a safe and secure environment.

Another good way to strengthen the lines of communication is to identify your dog’s calming behaviors, the things he does to relax himself. According to animal behaviorist Turid Rugaas, dogs send out these signals as a way to diffuse aggression and conflict. Many dogs will yawn, lick their lips or look away from the source of distress. By mirroring his response, you can send him the message that you are on his side, which should help promote more peaceful behavior. Go ahead and lick your lips, look away from him, slow down your pace and yawn. Learning how to send these calming signals back to your dog is a hallmark of effective canine communication.

Talk vs. Action

Veterinarian Daniel Mills recently completed research at the University of Lincoln in the UK which determined that dogs often respond better to visual cues over verbal cues. However, when verbal communication is used, pets respond differently depending on the tone of voice. Since dogs cannot adapt to our spoken-word communication, it’s vital that we adapt to their methods of interaction. Of course, each dog has its own personality, so it’s important to look at the whole picture and take your dog’s own quirks into account rather than interpreting an individual cue.

Beware of Dog

Fear and aggression are important behaviors to identify. An aggressive dog may point his ears forward or lay them back against the head. He will often bare his teeth and show a straight, rigid tail as well. You may hear a low, quiet growl that ends in a short bark or hear barks that are spaced out and low pitched, a sign that your dog wants you to back off. Fear usually manifests with a tail tucked between the legs or ears that are back but not flattened. Dogs may often cower when frightened and will feel particularly vulnerable, so beware of potential nipping or snapping.

Eager to Please

A submissive or trustful dog will typically lay his ears back and avoid eye contact while wagging his tail in a low position. When feeling particularly secure, he may even roll over and expose his belly. If he presents his posterior, don’t be offended; this is just another sign that he trusts you. A raised paw or paw on your lap is another sign of trust and connection. This may often be accompanied by a high pitched whine to let you know that he wants or needs something. Persistent whining may be more a sign of anxiousness or distress, so be aware of the difference.

Oh Boy! Oh Boy!

Happiness and confidence are usually the easiest traits to identify. When a dog is excited, his tail will wag so hard that it gets his whole body shaking. He may even seem to “smile” or bow to you with short, repetitive barks that indicate he’s happy to see you and ready to play. An erect yet relaxed posture with a tail that’s held high and wagging slightly are sure signs that your pooch is feeling pretty confident of the circumstances around him. You may also notice him venturing further ahead of you on a walk or investigating situations with little or no prompting.

It may take some work, but you can eventually learn to understand your dog’s communication cues, just as he learns how to adapt to yours. Through understanding, patience and consistency, we can “talk” in ways we never imagined. The end result should be a more secure pet that is willing to please. That’s one less dog headed to the shelter and that’s something to wag about!

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