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Learning the language...

The first step towards gaining good handling skills is through awareness, and where better to start than with understanding your dogs' body language? Behaviour counsellor and dog trainer Sheila Harper has give us permission to post this article from her newsletter.

Understanding your dog is a vital part of your relationship. It can help you recognise the difference between what he needs and what he wants.  It can help you anticipate how he is likely to respond in a situation, and he can let you know what he can and can't deal with.  This also means that in understanding what he is trying to say, you and those around you are likely to be much safer, as you can read and respond to his frame of mind, and also to that of other dogs.

Although many people recognise when their dogs are upset or fearful, the tendency is to only listen when they begin to bark, whine or growl.  By the time a dog has reached the stage where he needs to vocalise, he is often quite high in emotion.  A dog will often only resort to being vocal or to lunging or biting if his earlier language has been overlooked or ignored.

In fact, a dog's first choice of communication is body language. Because it is so visual the message is usually immediate, although to a human it can seem to be very subtle, As humans, we also use body language all the time, but because we rely so heavily on the spoken language we have lost much of our awareness of others' body language.

Our dogs use their body language in almost every interaction with us, but unfortunately a lot of this information becomes lost in translation and is frequently misinterpreted.  This means that the communication we use with our dogs tends to be one way.  We may talk to them, but we are rarely aware of the range of things they are trying to tell us.

Through evolution, dogs have developed their own sophisticated language and skills which enable them to be very effective in diffusing situations, avoiding conflicts and supporting others or seeking support according to their own skill levels. A dog may choose to remove himself from a difficult situation as long as he is able to do so. Whatever the case, he will do his best to communicate with the other species involved, whether that be dog, human or another animal, in order to manage the situation in the best way possible.

Improving our skills
In order to develop a better understanding of our dog's language, it's important to first learn some basics.  It is important to remain open-minded, to notice how and when a dog uses his body, and to try not to make interpretations too early. With this knowledge in mind, we are ready to start observing our dogs. 

Being aware at the number and variety of signs shown, along with the context in which the language is shown will give valuable information about how the dog is experiencing the situation and whether he needs support.  Once we can recognise a variety of signs, it will become clear that the dog will show how he feels.

Large body movements or postures are visible from a distance and they are often used early in the communication process.  More subtle language includes facial signals, such as licking the nose or narrowing the eyes.

Body movements
First of all, we should make a note of things that we might see.  What they mean can be considered later. 

Raised hackles, stiff movements, turning the head, body tension, curving when approaching another dog, and even sitting down, are some of the ways dogs may use to communicate. However, if we only look at each movement or posture in isolation, we may misunderstand the reason behind the action.  Of course, dogs don't always sit because they are trying to communicate.  Sometimes, it's just that it's more comfortable.  This means that considering the context of the action is extremely important.

A mature dog with good social skills will rarely approach another dog straight on as it's simply not polite to do so.  If dogs have had little guidance or support in their scialisation with other dogs or people, as is often seen in adolescents, for example, they may tend to approach very directly. This can be quite uncomfortable or even provocative for the other individual, and can even cause a reaction.  As with most inappropriate behaviour, it is not the amount of socialisation that a dog has had, it's actually the quality of socialisation that is important, and whether they have been able to learn appropriate skills.

Being in a position where making a curve is possible or sensible, some dogs will take themselves well out of the way, even going out of sight. A dog with good skills will curve, but the extent depends upon the body language shown by the approaching individual.

<image> Head turning.  This is used in a variety of contexts, but often where another dog or person approaches, or a situation where another individual is too close.  Head turning helps to diffuse situations.   If he finds himself in a tight situation where he is uncomfortable he may turn his head slowly and remain very still: a clear warning to back off.

When dogs are meeting for the first time, head turning in quick succession is often seen. In many instances both dogs can be seen using these movements along with other signals, communicating to each other to show they are not a threat as they move closer to each other.

<image> Sitting — a diffusing behaviour. Sitting could simply mean that a dog is unsure and as it is a non-threatening action this may be the best option to prevent escalation. If a dog turns his back when sitting, it usually means that he doesn't want anything to do with the situation, and is making it clear.

The tail
The tail can indicate a range of emotions, and of course a wagging tail doesn't necessarily mean a happy dog. It is important to look at the tail in combination with other signs the dog is giving.

  • A fast wag  may mean that the dog is excited.

  • A low slow wag shows that the dog is unsure of the situation and in combination with a slightly lowered head or a direct look  is likely to be a warning.

  • A high tail usually indicates a dog that is insecure and doesn't know what to expect.  It is most commonly seen when unfamiliar dogs first meet, where one or both dogs show the other that they feel uncomfortable. 

Facial communication
Facial communication gives a clear opportunity to see that unless the context is taken into account misinterpretation can arise:

Licking the nose.  A quick, subtle tongue flick, often missed by the inexperienced observer.  If food is present this action is often interpreted as the dog anticipating receiving a treat.  However, accompanied with averting the eyes, it is more likely to be the acknowledgment of a situation. A more obvious lick can occur if no notice has been taken of any previous subtle signs, for example if a young or pushy dog is present.

Of course dogs yawn when they are tired, but more commonly yawning is seen as a diffusing behaviour. A really obvious yawn often indicates a dog who feels uncomfortable.

Narrowing  the eyes
Dogs often narrow their eyes in acknowledgement to a situation, and may be accompanied by sniffing the ground or head-dipping.

Body movements alone or in combination with other signs are still only a part of the picture.  Other significant factors to take into consideration are the intensity, frequency, and duration of any communication, as these are a good indication of how strongly the dog feels about a situation.

Dogs tend to use the environment to diffuse situations, seemingly “pretending” to become involved in a natural behaviour.  This has parallels in human behaviour where someone might fiddle with a mobile phone in order to give himself a few extra moments to deal with challenging circumstances.

An example of this is sniffing the ground which a dog may use to acknowledge the presence of another dog.  However, in a similar situation but where the dog is sniffing intensely or frequently, he may be indicating that he is uncomfortable.  Of course, it could mean that he has found an interesting scent, and this again is why it is important to look at the context in which the behaviour is shown.

Dog to dog communication
By nature dogs are peace keepers. Their language is designed to diffuse situations, and when they have the opportunity to learn good communication in their early lives few problems arise.  However, if young dogs have little guidance or are allowed to behave impolitely with other dogs, tensions may escalate.  Puppies and adolescent dogs often break the rules of polite communication especially if they have had negative or frightening experiences themselves. 

Dogs with little life experience such as young dogs, or who have had no guidance in their contact with other dogs are more likely to ignore the subtle signals that another dog is giving them. Inappropriate behaviours such as dashing over to other dogs, jumping at them, and behaving in a pushy manner are unfortunately commonplace in some of these dogs and can be the cause of conflict.   The dog affected will often try to diffuse the situation with his body language, knowing that the other dog should have the skills to pick up on it. If not they may well bark or growl, and as a last resort, snap or nip.  Unfortunately, being forced into this kind of response can lead to lasting communication issues for both parties. 

In order to avoid such behaviour it is much better if owners can find opportunities for their puppy to mix individually with older, well-balanced dogs so that they can learn the communication skills and etiquette that they need to make them a good canine citizen.  However, the owner still needs to intervene if the puppy pesters the adult dog by moving between them and splitting up just as dogs do when mediating between members of their own species.

Dog to human communication
Our dogs are always using body language to communicate with us.  The only thing that stops us from listening to them is our lack of awareness and understanding.  This means that it is vital for us to learn what they are saying and to respond appropriately. 

Understanding basic communication is essential for a positive relationship between dog and owner, but this is just the beginning: it's what we do with that information that is really important. Understanding the way a dog communicates should be a way of life. If we understand what our dogs are saying to us, and listen to them, we could support them better and diffuse many difficult or potentially dangerous situations. By not responding to our dogs attempts to communicate with us, we make life much more difficult for all concerned. If we constantly overlook his subtle signs, he will eventually skip these all together and will jump straight to barking, or worse, biting — his last resort. We are constantly, unwittingly, putting our dogs into difficult, potentially dangerous situations, expecting them to cope. We effectively ignore much of their communication, leaving them little option but to “shout louder” which results in unwanted behaviour such as lunging, barking and biting. If we could just listen and understand the signals our dogs are giving off, we could avoid these situations, and through this understanding enhance the human/dog relationship.

Instead we tend to issue commands, raise our voices or even punish dogs for using behaviour that within their own society is perfectly natural and acceptable.  We can't expect that they will learn all of the social etiquette of our own society while we remain oblivious to theirs.

Human to dog communication
People tend to be very unaware of the subtleties of their dogs' language.  This means that we often fail to recognise when they feel uneasy or threatened and we rarely give them the space they need.

Dogs are an intelligent species, and as such deserve our respect.  Life would be much easier for dogs and safer for all concerned if we could understand that they are extremely competent in their language, and if we could respond appropriately to their language. We often push dogs into difficult situations because we don't see things from their perspective.  For example, we may take it for granted that a dog wants to be stroked, and ignore the subtle signs he shows that would tell us that he would prefer not to be touched at that particular time.  “Asking” the dog first may sound absurd, but is quite possible. To do this:

  1. Bend down near to your dog, but turn your body slightly away and face in the same direction as him.  Place your hand gently on the side of your dog's neck nearest to you.
  2. Softly stroke him once and remove your hand.
  3. Observe your dog's response. If he moves closer towards you or extends a paw in your direction, it is likely that he is inviting you to continue. If he doesn't respond, or instead turns his head away, yawns or licks his nose then this can indicate that he's not comfortable about it.

Understanding the reasons behind escalating language
Many people cannot understand when their dog reacts out of the blue in what they term an 'aggressive' manner.  In reality a dog will rarely resort to barking, lunging or biting without warning. However, there may be reasons which can cause him to act irrationally or out of character:

  • A situation over which he has little influence i.e. feeling trapped (being in a tight corner, or where an owner tightens the lead)
  • Fear or high stress levels

  • Pain or ill-health

Frustration can also occur if his signals have been missed or ignored too frequently.

How can we help?

  • By improving our observation skills and acknowledging our dog's language
  • By allowing our dog to use his natural language where possible.  If our dog wants to use communication such as curving, turning or moving away in a particular situation should support his decision even if it seems to be inconvenient for us.
  • By losing our unrealistic expectations and allowing him more space and time.
  • Using a longer lead which allows our dog to display polite and effective communication and to incorporate what are, in essence, skills for his own survival.

Further reading: Understanding the Silent Communication of Dogs by Rosie Lowry (Lowry Industries), £9.99; call 00 44 1675 466945 or visit

About the author...
Behaviour counsellor and dog trainer Sheila Harper teaches in-depth courses in canine behaviour. Sheila regularly teaches throughout Europe, has also worked in the USA and New Zealand, and is currently involved in delivering a two-year-long customised course to rescue shelter staff in Austria.

Much of Sheila's knowledge has come through living with dogs, observing their interactions, and learning how they deal with others in varied situations in everyday life. Since taking on her first rescue dog with dog-dog and dog-human aggression issues, Sheila has lived and worked with several rescue dogs, has practical experience of many dog-related problems and is particularly knowledgeable about communication, fear, stress, and aggression.  Along with her colleague Winny Boerman, she is well known for her unique approach to teaching dogs and owners Life Skills through exceptional handling.

The first step towards gaining good handling skills is through awareness, and where better to start than with understanding dogs' body language?


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