What Makes A Dog Tick?
Vol. 3: Language Part One:
Disclaimer: This series of blog entries is only basic information on how to become a dog whisperer and should not be thought of as a course or qualification. Becoming an occupational dog whisperer takes years of practice and education. Please leave the serious issues of your dog to the professionals.
In the last volume, we talked about pack structure. In this volume, we will talk about how dogs communicate with in the pack. Communication is extremely important in any social structure regardless of the species. Communication or Language must be prevalent in order to keep order and structure with in the social construct. As human beings, we have the most evolved language on the planet. We are the only species that can communicate across the planet at will. Which is one reason why we dominate the earth. As a dog psychologist and trainer, this is my favorite subject to teach. It is also my forte. Mostly because I find it fascinating that dogs can communicate in ways that aren’t always obvious to us. As you are reading, please keep in mind that you can not become a dog whisperer without knowing how dogs communicate, and learning to do so yourself. This is truly the most important lesson of them all. Get ready for a long, yet fascinating ride as I discuss and you learn about how dogs speak to one another.
First thing you need to know is that dogs do not see the world in the same way as we do. This is extremely important for those of you whom love your dogs to death. As you will learn, there is nothing wrong with loving your dog. I am simply stating that giving love in every situation can actually harm your relationship with your dog. Dogs do not see love as a strength when leadership is needed. For example: A dog comes into your home all frightened and hunched over and you try and love on the dog to calm him and reassure him. This dog will not see you as the leader of your home. Why, you ask? Because you are projecting a weak presence. Weakness is not respected in the canine world, it’s actually attacked. If that same dog entered a dog pack in the same fashion, he’d be attacked. Remember, survival of the fittest. Why do you think Cesar Millan is so successful with his client’s dogs? It’s because he doesn’t coddle them into rehabilitation, he leads them into rehabilitation. That same dog that came in fearful may become fear-aggressive, or even dominant once he gets used to the environment, and then you’ll have a dog with a bunch of behavior problems if you tried to love the fear out of him.
Dogs respect leadership, so in order to be a dog whisperer you need to learn the language of a leader. Leaders project themselves in a calm yet assertive and confident way. They hold themselves up straight, shoulders back, chest out, and stand tall. Just looking at them may make you hesitate to question their authority. You may know someone like this around you. It could be your parents, your professor, your boss, or even your spouse. Heck, it could even be your dog!
Alpha dogs (leaders) will reward good behavior and correct bad or defiant behavior. The reward could be anything from affection to play, or even food. Correction could be a bite, a fight, or even death. Alpha dogs expect their pack to obey and follow them regardless. So if one of the pack members breaks a rule, they are fiercely corrected. Usually there is a warning first, which could be showing teeth and growling. Then the correction comes if the warning is ignored. The alpha may just snap at the other dog, or pin them to the ground by way of placing their mouth around the neck and forcing the submissive dog down. Mother dogs do this with their pups when they get out of line, and this is where all canines learn what it means. This type of correction is not mean spirited, it’s simply a correction. The dog does not take it personally. The dog simply learns from it and moves on.
Most dominant dogs will also place their mouth around the muzzle of the submissive pack members just as a reminder of who the boss really is. We see this with our dogs from time to time. Your dog may place his mouth around your arm or hand. This is an indication that your dog sees itself as the alpha in your pack. Pups often do this as well when they are confused about their position in the pack. I can’t count how many cases I’ve had where the dog is nipping and mouthing their owners. Retrievers seem to do this more than other breeds, and I think it’s because they have a heightened oral fixation.
The basics of canine language when interacting with another creature or dog are as follows:
Display of Dominance: Ears up, Posturing (standing tall), Tail held straight up, Projecting confidence, may bark, and may make eye contact.
Display of Dominant – Aggression: Same as above except growling/snarling, bearing teeth, barking, and hackles will be up (the hackles are hairs along the neck and back of the dog).
Display of Submission: There are all kinds of submission. It is recognized when the subject is lowering the body, avoiding eye contact, and projecting a lower form of energy. Tail will be down, head will be down, ears will be down/back, and the body will be curved. The highest form of submission is when the dog lies on it’s back exposing it’s belly and urination occurs. When the dog does this he is telling the dominant dog that he surrenders to his power. Dogs will often display this kind of submission when they realize they have done something wrong. It’s kinda like begging for forgiveness.
Display of Calm – Submission: This is the display of a well balanced dog. The dog will project confidence, yet will not disobey. The tail is usually held inline with the body or lower and never tucked. The ears are relaxed as are the eyes and mouth. The head stays inline with the body. Calm – Submissive dogs are the ones you feel comfortable around. The energy you feel is calm, and you trust that the dog will never bite or disobey. These are the dogs that get compliments, "Wow, what a good sweet dog!" This is the energy that our pet dogs should be displaying around us.
Display of Fear: Fearful dogs tuck their tails lower their heads, ears, and bodies. These dogs will curl up when approached, and may try to run. They will hide and avoid confrontation at all costs. A dog displaying fear can not be helped until they calm down and relax. Furthering your attempts to chase after a fearful dog to love on it will make the dog’s fear worse. When approached, they may yelp.
Display of Fear – Aggression: Dogs displaying fear will become aggressive when cornered. Fearful dogs will usually always try to run away before trying to fight. When cornered they literally think they have to fight for their lives. The body language is the same as fear, only the hackles will be up and they will bear their teeth and growl.
Display of Insecurity: This is most common in small dogs. The reason is that they are often pampered and coddled, so when placed into an uncomfortable situation, they seek comfort and security. Insecurity is displayed when the dog paws at you to be picked up, or hides under your legs, or even behind you. The dog will try to put you between itself and whatever it is unsure about. The dog may also begin to pant and become anxious, or even lean on you.
Display of Anxiety: A good example of anxiety in a dog is dogs with separation anxiety. They pace, pant, run in circles, whine, howl, bark, chew, scratch at things and tear things up. An anxious dog is not calm. The body language will be tense, and the most reliable cues for anxiety is panting, pacing, and whimpering.
Display of Alertness: Dogs have an alarm mode built into their brains. When they sense someone intruding on their territory they will perk up. The ears will go up and forward, the nose will begin to twitch, and they will bark. Some dogs do not act as alert as others. The reason for this is that in a dog pack it is the job of one of the pack members to be the watch dog. All of the other pack members leave it up to this member to handle it. Police and Search and Rescue dogs are trained to remain alert on command in order to find their subjects.
There are many combinations of body language that mean different things that you can only learn with experience. It’s important to watch your dog and become familiar with his body language. Then you can begin to generalize with other dogs.
It is incredibly important to remember that dogs do not think like we do. When you speak to your dog, he is not agreeing with you, or sympathizing with you, or even arguing with you. Your dog is analyzing your body language, tone of voice, and the scent and energy you are projecting. They then react to that information. Dogs can, however, learn around 300 words, phrases, and commands. But they do not comprehend our vocal language. For example: Say you are feeling sorry for a dog for having to do something you don’t think it should have to do. You might say to the dog "Sorry, I tried to stop it." But the dog is simply listening to the tone and pitch of your voice, analyzing your scent, and reading your body language. The dog then decides how to react to all of that information. Every dog reacts differently depending on the personality of the dog.
Dogs communicate through play as well. A dog that wants to play will bow, lowering the front of the body and raising the back of the body. Barking is also common during play, as is happy panting. Dogs use play to dominant other dogs in a non-aggressive way by mounting and pulling the dogs down by the hips. Tug is also another way dogs dominate through play. Tug simulates two or three wolves in the wild fighting over a piece of meat, whoever wins gets the meat and is therefor dominant. You never want to lose to your dog in a game of tug. When playing, dominant dogs will tend to become possessive of toys as well. Play is a way to practice dominance and a way to celebrate. You might see wild dogs playing after successfully finding food, or going to the bathroom. Dogs celebrate through play when they feel good and are happy. Although there are some dogs that don’t know how to play correctly because of lack of socialization at a young age and are way too rough. Playing also is used to form bonds between dogs and to expend unused energy. Selective breeding over the years has turned out breeds that don’t play as much as others.
Barking and Howling: There are all kinds of barking and howling. I won’t be able to go into detail about them all, but here is a basic explanation of each:
Alarm Barking: This is common in Dachshunds and other hounds. They were bred to alert their humans when they’ve found prey. Alarm barking is part bark and part howl. It is used to alert the pack to prey, intruders, and threats.
Defensive Barking/Howling: Defensive barking/howling is strong low pitched barking/howling. It is meant to ward off potential threats. It sounds kinda rough and scary. Growls could be incorporated into it.
Dominant Barking: This bark is steady and firm. Some what low pitched, and may be spaced out. It’s used to communicate dominance and command respect. An example of this is a dog who barks at his owner for food, a walk, or for being corrected.
Fearful/Insecure Barking: This kind of bark is high pitched and almost a yelping sound. It conveys fear and insecurity.
Rally Barking/Howling: This type of howling is high pitched and meant to rally the pack. Domesticated dogs may do this when their owners leave, trying to reform the pack. Wolves do this to find each individuals location and call the rest of the pack to the same spot.
Frustration Barking: When it comes to this kind of barking, it really depends on the dog. Some dogs will bark aggressively, others will howl or even yap. Barrier frustration is a common time for dogs to emit this type of bark. Barrier frustration is caused by an object blocking or holding back the dog, such as a fence, a kennel, a person, or a leash. The dog gets so frustrated that it releases energy through this type of bark.
Wow, that’s a lot of information to take in in one entry. So I will break this volume up into two parts. You now have a very basic understanding of canine language, and in the next entry, Part 2, I’ll explain how to use it to your advantage.
Next Entry: "What Makes A Dog Tick?" Vol 3: Language Part 2.