How many times have you wondered exactly what your dog is thinking? When your retriever gazes out of the window, is he pondering the meaning of life or keeping careful guard? Does your whippet enjoy your cuddles or is she just tolerating them? If our pups could talk to us, what would they actually say?
The crazy thing is, in many ways, our dogs are already talking: we just need to learn to listen. Our dogs are giving us signals to read all the time but all too often we miss them or, worse, misinterpret them.
How your dog communicates with you
Below, we’ve explained some simple ways that our dogs communicate with us without us always noticing.
- Ears Pricked Up. Remember that retriever at the window? If your dog’s ears are standing upright, they’re on the alert. They might’ve spotted something in the distance that could be friend or foe, or maybe they’re standing guard for an anticipated intrusion. Either way, he or she isn’t a chilled canine!
- Ears Pinned Back. As we’ve seen above, the position of our dog’s ears is a window into their inner life. And a dog with their ears pulled back isn’t a happy hound! This is one of the most obvious signs that your pup is uncomfortable or anxious, and you should be prepared to remove them from the current situation.
- Tail Tucked. Returning ‘with your tail between your legs’ is a phrase for a reason! A tucked in tail is another signal that your dog is unhappy, nervous and/or feels vulnerable.
- Low Body Posture. It should be obvious, but if your dog is cowering and avoiding eye contact, he or she doesn’t want to be there. Coupled with the signals above, your dog is crying out for help.
- Tail Wagging. Waggy tails mean happy hounds, right? Actually, not always. This is one of the most commonly misinterpreted signals by pawrents, and it often means that we inadvertently take our dogs into situations they’re not comfortable with. While dogs do wag their tails when they’re excited or interested – the ‘helicopter tail’, where your dog’s tail whirls round in a circle – they also wag when they’re agitated. A tightly curled, low, or stiff and narrow wag (often accompanied by growls and barks) isn’t usually a sign that your dog wants to ‘say hello’ to a potential fur friend. It’s more likely a plea to ‘take me away!’
Interestingly, behaviourists have also noted that when dogs are cautious and unsure, they’re likely to wag towards the left side of their bodies. But if your dog’s tail is wagging to the right, they’ve probably seen something they like!
- Panting. Your dog will flop out their tongue and pant when they’re hot, the equivalent of human sweating, but they’ll also do this when they’re excited or nervous. If the weather is cool and your pup is panting, it’s a good idea to consider whether they’re distressed and need you to intervene.
- Yawning. A big yawn is sometimes simply a sign that your pup is dog-tired – but it can also mean so much more. Yawning can be a sign of stress, excitement, or even be a non-threatening ‘calming signal’ when meeting new fur friends.
- Tummy Tickles! Yep, when your dog rolls onto his back and offers his tummy, he’s probably asking you for a belly rub: this can be a beautiful communication between pawrent and pup, your dog showing his trust in you. However, when he rolls over and exposes his belly to another dog or to a strange human, it can be a ‘submissive’ sign, suggesting he’s nervous and doesn’t want to cause trouble.
As you can see, many of the signals our dogs give us have multiple interpretations, so it’s important to view them in the context of the situation, other signs your dog is giving, and your knowledge of your dog as an individual. One way to develop this knowledge is to build an intimate connection and way of communicating with your dog that goes beyond ‘commands’.
How you can communicate with your dog
Because as much as our dogs communicate with us, in turn, we can communicate with them: and not by shouting ‘Stay!’ ‘Drop!’ or using human gestures like pointing.
- Before we can begin to try out more subtle ‘language’ with our dogs, we need to be present with them. We need to feel connected. After all, how can we expect our dogs to listen to us if we’re not listening to them? Sit quietly with your dog and try to allow any distracting thoughts or noises to melt away. Breathe deeply and look at him or her with soft, unfocused eyes, keeping your attention on them alone. Blink slowly, a calming sign that you may find your dog copying.
- Take a series of slow, deep breaths while holding one hand on your own diaphragm and the other on your dog. Then move both hands to your pup and simply feel the speed and depth of their breathing. Often, you’ll find that your own breathing has become synchronised with your dog’s! Sometimes your dog will even mimic your breathing: while he or she watches your face, quickly inhale and exhale. If your dog copies you, give him or her a reward, strengthening your bond and cementing your dog’s sense of you as a loving guide. Research has shown that dogs can read our facial expressions and won’t trust those who look angry, so keep your face open and positive. Think of the first time you met your pup, or something they’ve done that made you laugh!
- Behaviourist Karen Overall also recommends singing, humming making other soft sounds that your dog will then associate with these calming sessions. That means that when your dog becomes overexcited in the future, you can make those same sounds and immediately bring him or her to a calm space, assuring them that “everything is okay”.
- One of our favourite communication exercises, described by Dog Behaviour Consultant Leslie McDevitt, is the ‘awareness walk’, during which you are entirely present with your dog, no distractions. Simply walk with your pup, on a long lead or unleashed, without any agenda or expectation. This sounds stupidly simple, but how often do we walk our dogs with no destination or objective in mind? Follow your furry friend as she tracks scents and explores her environment, keeping your focus solely on her and rewarding her when she returns her attention to you. This sort of deeply connected walking is a wonderful way to communicate to your dog that you’re there keeping her safe, but also allowing her freedom.
When we connect with our dogs and start to see things from their perspective, we become far more understanding owners. After all, how would you feel if you were forced into a bath, or your home was invaded by a stranger? You’d probably fight back or raise the alert, yet we expect our dogs to stay quiet and calm. Thinking like your dog is the first step in building a direct line of communication and becoming more attuned to your furry friend’s needs.
Of course, the signals and exercises described here only scratch the surface. Our dogs have so many more ways to communicate with us, and there are a multitude of ways that we can ‘talk’ back. Some great resources to help you get down with doggy lingo and build a deeper connection with your hound are:
- Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed
- Marc Bekoff’s Canine Confidential
- Zazie Todd’s Wag: The Science of Making your Dog Happy
- Turid Rugas’ On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals
- Lili Chin’s Doggie Language.