Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Complex Dog Communication

Communication is part of every interaction and always a continuous feedback between all parties. One organism sends out a message with the intent to get a response, which, when it comes, it will act on or answer back to, which elicits another response, and so on. Effective communication depends both on the receiver understanding the signals and then corresponding accurately.
Pretty straightforward concept to understand, isn’t it? Indeed it is, and yet many humans seem to have difficulties. There are communication gaps between neighbors and nations, genders and generations – and species, like humans and dogs. Miscommunication is common and happens easily, often unintentionally, but the consequences are profound: passing conflict situations and permanent problem behaviors. A dog who is misunderstood is tense and anxious. If your responses to his signals don’t make sense, he’ll check out; ignore you and act on his own terms. Those are typically the dogs labeled stubborn or dumb.
Methinks that the reason why humans have communication problems is because we love telling others what to do much more than listening to what they’re trying to say.
But even if someone takes an interest in learning canine communication signals, and the dog speaks clearly because he was bred conscientiously and given opportunities to learn his own language, it can still be "Greek" to the average dog owner. That is because our companion dogs live in a complex world that requires complex communication. Signals that look the same can mean different things, depending on the situation. Communication is context specific and dynamic.
Let me illustrate: Our Davie is an exclusive to her social group kinda dog. More often then not, when she averts her head, which would be interpreted by most as an appeasing, submissive signal, what she really says is that she is not granting audience and wishes to be left alone. Turning her head is a very polite, but confident, “get lost” message.
Our Newf Baywolf’s rolling on his back was also not submission, but an active and confident attempt to solicit a tummy rub.
One behavior often misinterpreted is the play bow; the front half of the dog lowered with the butt up in the air. As the term implies, it is an invitation for a romp, but can also signal the opposite: a dog wishing a pause during play if things get a little heated.
A play bow can be just a long stretch, or used by the dog to buy time to assess a novel or uncertain situation he feels conflicted about.
Marking is communication. For scent-oriented dogs, leaving small amounts of smelly body fluid at many strategically important places is imperative. Both males and females do it; neutered or not, and some girls even lift a leg. Urine marking claims real estate, but also adds familiarity to an unfamiliar place or situation and thereby relieves anxiety. A dog might pee to entice another to mark on top, so that more information about the newcomer can be gained without having to get to close to him physically - like the canine version of a phone call or Facebook message. A wolf mating couple announces their union by marking together, and bonded dogs often pee simultaneously. Not one after the other, but at the exact same time. Bonded social group members synchronize their actions.

Mounting is rarely sexual and usually also not status seeking, but the attempt to control and change a situation the dog is annoyed or concerned about. It implies anxiety about a situation without a plan to solve it. Mounting can be either be directed against the perceived problem dog, or redirected against the one who happens to be closest, much like a redirected bite.

Next time your dog yawns, try to determine the motivation. Is he a tad worried and tries to pacify you or another, or submissively seeks acceptance? A yawn after a nap likely has dual purpose; taking in more oxygen to get ready for action, and signaling the other group members to join in. But maybe your pooch is just tired, and the yawn is nothing more than an involuntary body function.

Knowing the fine nuances of your dog’s body language allows you to respond accurately, and that has a powerful effect. Your dog will feel understood and almost immediately feel less anxious and be more attentive.

If you are keen to learn more, and are in Nova Scotia, mark September 18 and 19 on your calendar. Adina MacRae and I will be talking about body language and dog play. It is an one-day, people-only event. In the morning we will be at Happy Hounds on Barrington to analyze a bunch of photos and video footage - all our own material, which means we know the context. In the afternoon we’re all heading to Seaview Park for guided field observation. Because of the field trip, we want a small group and space is very limited to 20 people each day.
For more info and to register, email:

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