Ever get the feeling your dog is talking to you? You’re right. If you’ve longed to know what’s going on in your dog’s heart and mind, and to communicate back, here’s a surefire way to connect. Learn to read what your dog is saying to you, and speak to your dog in a language your dog can understand.
Conversing with Your Dog
Your dog talks to you in three straightforward ways: via behavior, with body language and by vocalizing. Hone your observational skills to decode your dog’s messages. Then respond with clear hand signals in order to communicate most effectively. Body language is the bridge to communicating with your dog.
Start with listening. Your dog’s body language broadcasts clear giveaways to their feelings. Don’t ignore it. Dr. Lynn Honeckman, veterinary behavior expert explains, “We can learn to read the body language of dogs displaying happiness, curiosity, anxiety, fear and hostility. Even learning the basics of interpreting a dog displaying Approachable versus Stay Away body language can be of the greatest benefit.”
A relaxed flag-waving tail often means “I love you” but a raised twitching tail is an aggressive display. There’s some difficulty reading the “tail language” of a dog with a stubby tail.
Floppy ears generally indicate calm, but erect ears means “I’m on alert”. Your dog is deciding how to react. Flattened ears may be your dog telling the world she is afraid. Behaviors on-leash, such as hiding behind you, freezing, or trying to go the opposite direction let’s you know something is wrong. Change the situation so she can relax.
Body posture is another emotion indicator. Forward leaning with a stiff body are warnings to back off. If your dog freezes over the food bowl or fixates on another dog, a bite may follow. “Looking versus non-looking has various meanings” says Carol Byrnes, creator of What is My Dog Saying? and What is My Dog Saying at the Dog Park? available online for pet parents and trainers who want to learn more.
Vocalizations such as whining, growling and barking are your dog’s way of telling you she is uncomfortable. Whines often mean, “I’m scared, help me” or “I want something” whereas a growl is a warning. Barks have a lot of different meanings, depending on the context.
“Listen” for Doggie Disorders
Indoors, following from room to room, escape attempts, housetraining or destructive regression are some classic symptoms of separation/attachment problems. Your dog is not a happy camper. Fears may be treated with very slow acclimation and exposure to the troubling stimulus. Use baby-step socialization desensitization for confidence building. Dogs with human aggression or serious dog/dog aggression problems need professional help.
“Talk Back” by Marking
When your dog does something “all by herself” that you’d like to see more of, such as sitting or making eye-contact on leash, “Capture” it by marking it with a treat. Behaviors that are rewarded are repeated, so reward what you like regularly and frequently and you’ll be getting more and more of what you want. Use “Luring” with a treat to get a jump-start on a new behavior. You may want to use a clicker to mark a behavior before you reward.
Developing a good relationship with your dog is two-way street. Stay positive. Don’t correct... redirect. Punishment and old school dominance training methods produce anxiety and may cause aggression making a troubling behavior even worse. Learning to look at the world from your dog’s point of view will help you understand and respond appropriately to dog talk so you can both be happy!
Linda Michaels, “Dog Psychologist,” MA, and Victoria Stilwell-licensed Del Mar dog trainer and speaker may be reached at 858.259.WOOF (9663) or by email: LindaMichaelsPositively@gmail.com for private obedience instruction and behavioral consultations near Del Mar and the San Diego Coast. Please visit us at DogPsychologistOnCall.com
Originally published in the Natural Awakenings Magazine, Pet Edition. San Diego.