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Communicating with Your Dog: Body Language and Calming Signals

Humans communicate primarily through words, but animals rely on body language. Dogs communicate with their tails, ears, mouths, stance and eye contact, how they face you, and who wins at tug-o-war. Sometimes when people claim a pet's behavior changed without warning, it may well be that the people failed to notice a fairly clear signal given by the dog.

Miscommunication in our own body language and behavior can cause problems in training. While trying to act as alpha or leader, you may be sending conflicting signals that the dog interprets as an uncertainty on your part. Giving ground to a pushy or leaning dog, feeding treats and meals on her command, or allowing her to display dominant postures can lead to a hard-to-control pet.

Misinterpretation of body language accounts for many bite incidents. When a child looks intently at a dog, smiles and leans forward to pet the animalŐs head in an act of friendliness, the dog may think the child is casting a challenging stare, showing teeth and engaging in a threatening physical approach. And people of every age have equated tail wagging with friendliness. A tail held straight up (or curled over the back) and rapidly moving from side to side in small, quick movements indicates arousal, not friendliness. When a dog bares his teeth, that is typically not equivalent to a smile.

It helps to remember that dogs were bred by humans for specialized tasks, and their instincts havenŐt had time to catch up. Furthermore, a dog with long facial fur, for example, can give the impression of avoiding eye contact. Long hair and short legs can hamper communication through posture.

We can try to imitate some canine body language. For example, some owners imitate play blows to convey a willingness to play.

In the book "On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals," canine behavior specialist Turid Rugaas discusses her studies of instinctual canine calming signals and how dog owners can use this information to communicate more effectively with their dogs.

Dogs have the ablity to calm themselves in the face of a threatening or stressful situation and to calm each other. Consider how dogs meet. If worried a dog can communicate: "I know you are the boss here and I won't make trouble." The boss dog can communicate that "no trouble is intended--I'm in charge around here and I mean you no harm." Dogs who do not signal properly can face many problems.

By paying attention to canine signals, we can help dogs feel more secure. For example, we can lead a dog in an arc around a person she perceives as threatening. Also, a vet or groomer can approach a nervous dog from the side to gain the dog's confidence.

Dogs' calming signals include:

* Moving slowly in an exaggerated motion.
* Moving in an arc.
* Sniffing the ground.
* Sitting or lying down.
* Lip licking -- a quick little flick of the tongue is usually a signal to calm down.
* Blinking, averting eyes, turning away, displaying their back or side to another dog or person.
* Yawning -- dogs yawn to reduce their own stress and attempt to calm others. Tip: when a dog displays a fear of some common, nonthreatening stimulus (such as the approach of another dog or someone in a hat), the family members might try looking away and yawning at the onset of the stimulus.

If a puppy, while displaying calming signals, is attacked by a dog lacking respect for appropriate body language, the pup learns a negative lesson. So be careful about who you expose the puppy to. Most dogs need more than one or two bad incidents to extinguish their signaling instincts. But itŐs good to protect young dogs from interacting with angry dogs. Safe, friendly dogs who display strong signals are the best teachers a young dog can have. This is a reason puppy obedience classes are helpful.

Note: When other dogs or people are manuevering around a dog, it can sometimes be a disadvantage to keep her in a "sit/stay" and prevent her from using her natural calming signals that make her want to lie down or move away.

The first part of this article was adapted from "Learning to Hear What Animals Tell You," by Carla Schack in Animal Guardian, Summer 2001. The latter contains information from the book "On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals" by Turid Rugaas. For an insightful guide to canine body language, see http://www.canine-behavior.com/html/body.html

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Last Updated: July 02, 2013 (LET) PawSupport