Speaking Primitive Dog

Communication is key in any healthy relationship. The traditional model for dog ownership has been that we are a dog’s master and should tell them what to do at all times. Your primitive dog didn’t get this memo and calls “BS” on this human exceptionalist view of the relationship. They didn’t sign up for a destiny of servitude and are relieved that if you’re reading this, you probably didn’t either.

 This is play. But besides the teeth, can you see other pieces of body langauge communication that can tell us what's going on?

This is play. But besides the teeth, can you see other pieces of body langauge communication that can tell us what's going on?

The relationship between a primitive dog and their “owner” is one of give and take, primarily grounded in fairness. Things generally go awry when one of us feels a lack of balance in the relationship and someone's needs are taking a back seat. This usually shows itself as yelling, chasing, flailing, grabbing, or worse on the part of the human. For humans this is clear body language of displeasure and anger. For our dogs we usually miss the first signs. We don’t notice our dog’s displeasure until they are doing the canine equivalent of screaming: ie growling, lunging, barking, and biting. All of these behaviors can be prevented with a basic knowledge of canine communication, and an effort of observe and understand.

Dogs communicate using their bodies. Prior to barking or growling and especially biting, they display lots of smaller signals. These signals are expressed through the dog’s ears, eyes, mouth, body posture, and tail set. While a human usually express themselves with their face and hands, we too use body postures and more slight signals, though we usually only pick on those signals subconsciously useless we are taught otherwise.

The graphic above is an example of many of the body language signals dog's give off. It is rarely just one signal but the combination that matters. Don't get caught up in the movement of your dog's tail. The tail is more of an emotion barometer, not a gauge of "happy". The more the tail moves the more emotion being expressed. Plenty of unhappy dogs wag their tails so never use that as a gauge for "happy", but instead use it as a gauge for "intensity".  Other signals like where a dog's gauge is pointing, stiffness of the face and body, and direction of ears tells us much more about our dog's feelings and the point they are trying to make. Examine the graphic and check out other visual aids on Lili Chin's website. She has fantastic drawings that really help you better understand communication. The Dog Decoder app is also helpful at teaching you how to interpret what your dog is saying.

One error we make when communicating with our primitive dogs, is not respecting their signals and the feelings behind them. If a dog is expressing signs of fear, discomfort or is acting confrontational, we may take this personally and respond by forcing ourselves and the outcome we want, on them. By disregarding our dog’s signals, we are only communicating to the dog that their requests will be be ignored and that they must respond in the future in louder and more aggressive ways. 

If our dog expresses a reaction to something that we wish they liked or are trying to get them excited about, forcing the issue won’t win them over. When in your recent memory did you learn to like something because it was forced on you without any explanation? Instead, working with your dog and carefully reading their body language will allow you to help them change their minds while building confidence and enthusiasm.

 These two are discussing who gets to keep the pomogranate. Can you see the subtle but powerful body language in this conversation?

These two are discussing who gets to keep the pomogranate. Can you see the subtle but powerful body language in this conversation?

Once your dog knows you’re listening, it can have profound effects on your relationship. Want to better understand your dog and their feelings? Try journaling the signals your dog gives so you can see associations and patterns. Respect discomfort when you see it and try to assist in helping your dog feel better about a situation. If you’re not sure how, contact us and we’ll help you.