Talking Dogs!

We’ve all heard the expression, “There’s an App for that!” It must be true because recently,I saw that someone had designed a smart phone application that translated ‘dog’ into English. Of course, they are just for fun and don’t really translate, but it was fun to think about. The truth is, you really don’t need an app to understand your dog. All you need is a bit of knowledge and some observational skills to receive and understand the message they are sending.

Dogs communicate in a variety of ways. Scent, vocalizations and body postures all convey information to other dogs. Scent is form of communication that we currently don’t know much about. Considering the amount of time and effort put into sniffing, it is probably one of the most important communication tools for dogs. According to Alabama A&M and Auburn Universities, “A dog’s sense of smell is said to be a thousand times more sensitive than that of humans. In fact, a dog has more than 220 million olfactory receptors in its nose, while humans have only 5 million.”

Vocalizations, while limited in comparison to our own ability to speak, still convey a great deal of information. Several studies have confirmed that barks have different functions in different contexts and are able to be differentiated by both human and canine listeners. There is much work left to be done in this area.
Body postures or visual signals, such as tail wagging and lip curling, are the focus of this article and are usually easy for most people to identify. The meaning of each of these signals can be interpreted simply by watching the reaction of the dog on the receiving end of the message. Of course, the meaning can also be derived through trial and consequence. The latter is not a good strategy to avoid a bite however!
Most people recognize the tail wagging as friendly and consider the lip curl as aggressive. I see clients worried about growling and snarling everyday. I don’t want to make light of snarling, growling or snapping behaviors, because these are real warnings that something is wrong and the dog is uncomfortable. But, and this is the big one, they are not behaviors that should be punished or stopped.

The behaviors of barking, growling, lunging, snarling or snapping are types of communication that are considered warning signs. These behaviors alone are not “aggression.” Aggression can be differentiated from warnings by understanding the underlying intent. When a dog threatens, it is intended as a warning to stop a particular interaction or cause someone or something to move away. The purpose or function of those behaviors is to avoid aggression and not to cause harm.

A dog that doesn’t want to be bothered by another dog when enjoying a yummy bone might snarl. A female may object to being sniffed a bit too long by a potential suitor by snapping. A dog who is cornered by an approaching dog might growl. The message is “stop and give me more space.” The wise dog heeds the warnings and moves away, certain to be more polite in the future.

When we don’t want to engage or when something exceeds what we are capable of tolerating, we are able to articulate our feelings. We can say, “please stop that,” “not now,” or even “knock it off!” The only way dogs can convey this message is with the signals we have discussed.

So, when are these warning behaviors a problem? They are a problem when the message is disregarded, not taken seriously or even suppressed. That is where the trouble begins. If the dog’s warning is not heeded and the situation is not diffused, it can escalate and eventually turn into a bite. When a dog intends to do harm, it is an aggressive act.

Punishing warning signs will only suppress those particular warning behaviors. However, the result is a dog who has no way of communicating that he is uncomfortable with a situation. That leaves only two options, tolerate the situation that he finds intolerable or escalate to biting.

Don’t feel affronted if your dog growls, snaps or snarls. It is very common for people to attribute those behaviors to dominance. Humans hang on to this term very tightly. I think we do because humans are more likely to view life in the context of a power struggle. These signals aren’t personal and they aren’t dominant, they are communication.

What you should do is be like the wise dog and back off. This is not a weak approach, it is not ‘giving in’, it is smart, safe and respectful of the species that was sending the message. Once the situation has been diffused, analyze it. Why was the dog uncomfortable? How can it be made easier for the dog if there is a next time?

If you are experiencing threatening behaviors from your dog, it is recommended that you secure an appointment with a professional skilled in canine behavior using positive methods. They can help you determine the cause of the behaviors and craft a plan that will gradually make the situation more tolerable to the dog. Additionally, they will teach the dog behavioral responses that are incompatible with the threatening ones.

Either way, you will have heard your dog’s message loud and clear. He’ll thank you for it!