Monday, October 3, 2011

Do You Talk to Your Dog?

Author, Bob McMillan
How often do you talk to your dog? Probably a lot more than you
think. You just may not be aware of what you’re telling your furry pal.

And, the odds are, you wish you better understood what your dog is
saying to you, too. Most pet owners hit the wall early on and many give
up. But, with awareness and persistence, you can become fluent in Dog Talk,
better understand your pet and strengthen your bond.

And the bond is everything, unless owning a dog to you means
keeping it in a pen in your backyard and seeing it twice a day when you slide a
pan of food between the bars. If you like your dog and your dog likes you, you
naturally want to bridge the species gap and communicate. It’s what friends do.

But how? Dogs can only understand a hundred or so spoken words and,
as far as I know, speak back far less. Dogs bark, but that’s just noise, right?
A growl means he’s about to bite and a wagging tail means he’s glad to see you,

Not exactly. Just as you use one tone of voice to praise Rover and
another to tell him to drop that pound of sirloin he just snatched from the
countertop, the pitch and intensity of a dog’s bark tells you a lot.

Listen. There’s a different bark or growl for “Let me in,”
“There’s a stranger in the yard,” “Let’s play” and “Touch me there and lose
that finger.” Researchers have recorded a broad range of vocalization in
canines. It’s language to other dogs. It’s Greek to us so we have to pay

Some breeds like the African Basenji never bark due to the shape
of their larynx. My wolfhound never barks. He howls. Usually for recreation and
stress relief. He does it with the beagle, who never misses a chance to join a
sing-a-long. Opportunities to study vary from dog to dog.

Barking’s not the total picture. Your dog’s body language speaks volumes.
It pays to at least know the basics in your own dog and others too. For
instance, that wagging tail doesn’t necessarily mean he’s glad to see you.
Sometimes it means the dog is sizing you up and may bite. You have to read all
the signs before sticking that hand out.

How is the tail wagging? Happily side to side or with slowly
back and forth like a tiger’s before he strikes? What’s his ears doing? Are
they laid back fearfully or cocked foward with interest? Watch the corners of
the mouth, too. Is the dog grinning, grimacing or merely parting its lips to
show you that its teeth are very, very sharp?

You have to read all the signs and put them in context. Is the dog
smiling and wagging his tail while you bring in the food bowl? Or is this a dog
you don’t know and you’re in his yard? If can see his teeth he’s
probably not smiling.

It may sound complicated but... your dog can do it. It’s how he
reads you every day. He knows the tone of your voice. He’s an expert at reading
your face and posture. It’s why you find him at the door with his leash in his
mouth before you get completely out of your chair to go for a walk.

A study last year by Dr. Ken Guo of the University
of Lincoln in England
presented test dogs with pictures of the faces of humans, chimps, dogs and
inanimate objects. Reactions were videotaped and analyzed.

Guo found something surprising. The dogs not only read human
emotions, they do it the same way people do, with a “left gaze bias.” That is,
they glance left. The left side of the human brain controls emotions that are
shown first and foremost on the right side of the face. When someone faces you,
more emotions are displayed on the right side, or to your left. The test
dogs glanced left only at photos of human faces. No other animal is known to do

The study supports other recent discoveries indicating that dogs
and humans are remarkably similar in their emotions and how we recognize and
evaluate them in others. In short: we’re a lot alike.

A Norwegian trainer and author, Turid Rugaas, opened the door to
more understanding of dog behavior recently with her findings on dog “calming
signals,” a sort of previously secret language of dogs.

As pack animals, dogs naturally seek harmony in their pack through
a series of quick gestures to say to one another, “I mean you no harm,” or
“Relax, we’re just playing.”

Does your dog throw out his front paws and “bow” to you when
you’re playing ball? Rugaas says that’s a “play bow.” Rover is saying, “We’re
not seriously fighting over this ball. We’re just playing.” When you bend over
playfully, you’re returning the signal and Rover responds with a grin. It’s a
calming signal.

So are blinks, yawns, sniffing the ground, looking away and
approaching another dog or a person not straight on but in an arc. It’s more
than canine politeness. Dog use calming signals to calm each other. If Spot has
just eaten your best loafers and you’re stomping up to him, he’ll probably give
you calming signals like crazy, too. You just may not recognize them.

Once you do, you can use them too. If you have more than one dog,
or when your dog is around others, watch closely how they greet each other.
Watch the eyes and body language. You’ll see a quick exchange of signals...
friendly blinks, a quick flick of the lips with the tongue, maybe a seemingly
nonchalant sniff at the grass. The more you train yourself to observe, the more
you’ll be amazed.

You can amaze your fur pals too. The first time I entered a room,
sat next to my deerhound, Gracie, and gave her an affectionate blink, she answered
it right away with a blink back... and then looked out of the corner of her eye
at the other hounds as if to say, “Hey, are you guys catching this? He’s talking
to us!”

It’s a small way you can meet your dog at his or her level,
learning calming signals, saying, “I’m okay, you’re okay,” and strengthening
the friendship.


McMillan is an editor and columnist with the Cookeville Herald-Citizen

newspaper and lives on a mountain with several giant hounds and wary cats.


column was originally printed in the Herald-Citizen

in Cookeville, Tennessee.

Please visit for more information on the

newspaper. We thank the Herald-Citizen
staff for allowing FFBF

to re-print this piece.

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