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How Dogs Communicate with Humans
“He wants to go out.”
“He wants you to play with him.”
“He wants you to pet him.”
“He doesn’t like you doing that.”
Dog owners spend a lot of time interpreting and acting on their dog’s vocal and body language signals. It is an ongoing and interactive non-verbal discourse between members of two completely different species. Let’s look into how this happens a little more closely.
Canine Vocal Communication
Dogs are not big on vocal communication, but they do produce various types and intensities of sounds, ranging from whimpering and muttering to growling and barking, and, through this means, achieve some crude communication with other dogs and humans. Dogs may be better at communicating with humans in this way than with other dogs.
- Dog barks furiously (high energy bark – excitement over seeing a squirrel on TV)
- We try opening the door (maybe he wants to go out?)
- Dog thinks we’re strange – but registers what has transpired
- Dog wants to go out – tries a few things that don’t work and then remembers the effect of barking. Tries it out and it works
- Stimulus-response association is strengthened and high energy barking becomes the signal for going out
The corollary to this communication struggle is human/dog vocal communication. Dogs are by no means linguists: For them, English is a second language. But they do recognize a number of human sounds and are particularly attuned to hard consonants; sounds like “cuh” and “teh” (the word CAT is particularly easy for a dog to appreciate). The late, great Barbara Woodhouse knew this all too well and she favored (and popularized) one-word commands like siT, ouT, waiT, and stoppiT. Dogs can learn literally hundreds of human sounds, but they are no good at stringing them together. You can teach a dog to sit when you say SIT and you can teach him the word DINNER, but when you tell him “SIT IN YOUR DINNER” he will be at a loss as to what to do. That’s where body language comes in to fill the communication gap.
Dog Body Language Communication
Here the talents are reversed. Dogs are experts at sending and receiving body language signals and, in contrast, we are dumb clucks. The signs dogs use to communicate with each other are fairly well known and include certain facial expressions, body postures and movements (see Dog to Dog Communication.)
Of course, dogs try using these expressions to communicate with humans, assuming that we speak the same language. Some people understand what they see – and some don’t. Although most humans understand extremes, such as the threatening expressions and postures of attack, the subtleties of canine “signing” are often overlooked or misconstrued.
Some people, rightly or wrongly, apply their own interpretation of dogs’ body language. For example, the submissive grin of a self-effacing terrier may be interpreted by owners as a smile. The owners laugh and reward the behavior, which is thus conditioned and will later occur on cue; “Have you seen Bonzo smile?” an owner might ask her friend. On hearing the word SMILE, Bonzo then approaches, head and neck bowed and body wiggling, as he displays a super-reinforced submissive grin that looks for all the world like a human smile. Because everyone is happy about this novel event, the smile even appears to occur in context.
We humans aren’t well versed in body language but we do have a little of our own. We stare in indignation and defiance. We crane our necks forward and jut out our chins by way of threat and lower our heads in submission and shame. We don’t do much wiggling of our ears, and we don’t have a tail to wag, but we do have hands that point or threaten. Even though dogs may not initially cotton on to the full significance of human hand jive, they do eventually get the message. Skillful trainers learn the importance of conveying a mix of signs, ranging from direct eye contact and forward body movement to hand signals, when giving a command. One deaf Dalmation, Hogan, knows 45 words of American Sign Language so the potential for learning in the signing department is large. Also, it has been recently shown that dogs can follow our gestures to find hidden objects. The fact that dogs display this talent means that dogs have evolved to understand us, their human caregivers, more than was previously believed possible.
The Mechanics of Dog Communication
- The whimper – anxiety (I’m miserable)
- The whine – frustration (can be inadvertently reinforced as an attention-getting behavior)
- The growl – back off
- The howl – I can’t find you (long distance communication, loneliness, misery)
- The bark – different types of bark mean different things. There are greeting barks (excitement/happiness), alarm barks, barking for attention and as a threat (frequently reinforced by the person’s response)
The Dog Look
- Direct eye contact – looking for attention or serving as a threat (depending on the context)
- Averted eyes – submission/deference
- Looking at an object – to direct the owner to the object in question, whether a ball that has rolled under a couch or a door that is creating an impasse
Dog Head/Neck Posture
- Up – attention or challenge
- To the side/turning away – deference/attempts at avoidance
- Head held low – submission
- Tense muscles – subconscious sign of impending fight or flight
- Relaxed body, relaxed musculature – easy going attitude
- Head held low but rear end elevated, tail wagging – I want to play
We can read the dog’s mood from the tail position/movement, but the tail is not really intended to communicate anything to humans. However, when the tail is up it means the dog is actively interested (a confident, attentive gesture). Tail tucked is submission; tail horizontal is neutral mood or indifference; tail movement (wagging) reflects the dog’s energy level/excitement level.
- Movement toward a person is designed to get their attention.
- Movement away from a person transmits the dog’s uncertainty about that person. The dog’s movement away from the person is a defensive move.
Conclusion on How Dogs Communicate with Humans
However they manage it, and however we manage to interpret it, there can be no doubt that dogs can get their message across to receptive owners and can often direct a person’s behavior to suit their needs. Though deep philosophical discussions are not possible, basic wants and needs can be transmitted, sometimes with remarkable clarity and fluency.
The reverse also appears to be true. If we are sad, our dogs seem to pick up on this, perhaps spending increased time in close proximity to us and changing their demeanor toward us. Sense of smell comes into a dog’s reading of a person, too. Some dogs can tell if a person with diabetes is becoming hypoglycemic (low blood sugar), presumably because they detect the sweet smell of “ketosis” (caused by altered fat metabolism). Other dogs pay inordinate interest to malignant tumors and, because of their interest, direct the owner’s attention toward them. Yet others anticipate seizures in a seizure-prone person before the individual is aware that there is something wrong.
As owners learn more about their dog’s abilities to communicate with them, they build a more harmonious and more fulfilling relationship. The more we can understand about what our dogs are trying to tell us the better dog owners we will become. Some people have lengthy conversations with their dogs. The dog clearly cannot understand much of what is being said, but he may realize that he is getting attention, may recognize occasional sounds, and will probably pick up on the mood of the person talking to him.
Recently, it was reported that reading a telephone directory to a dog using different intonations for otherwise gibberish communication produces responses from the dog that match the tone of the reader’s voice. For example, reading people’s names, addresses, and telephone numbers in a happy tone caused the dog to act happily, head up, standing tall and tail wagging, with the dog seeming to appreciate what was being said. Conversely, if a similar list was read in a morose voice, the dog would act sheepish or depressed, mirroring what he thought to be his owner’s mood. For dogs, voice intonation and actions often speak louder than words.