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Canine Communication

Our relationships with our dogs and how communication is so vital to them. Our relationship with dogs has been in existence for “more than 15,000 years” per Michigan State University. Given that, it isn’t surprising how strong and meaningful it is today. Originally, it was very different than it is now. Humans originally had a working relationship with dogs. Dogs gave protection and did other tasks for people like tracking animals for hunting as well as catching and killing rodents that could steal food and carry disease. Ever since then, dogs have continued to learn and perform many different types of work for us.

When we look at our relationship with our companion (pet) dogs it has changed and developed into something very different. Our dogs get physical care from us, but they also get affection, mental stimulation and comfort. We humans also get affection, mental stimulation, comfort and more from our pet dogs.

Michigan State University has more to say on the subject:

  • “Research shows that pets can lower blood pressure, reduce stress, raise blood oxytocin levels, and, in some cases, may reduce direct pain”.
  • “People living with dogs are 15 percent less likely to die from heart disease.”
  •  “By interacting with companion animals, elderly people can experience positive mental and physical effects. Similar results can occur in children during emotional, cognitive, social, and behavioral development.”

So how do we know what our dogs are trying to say to us? Just about all of my dog training clients tell me about various ways that their dogs have communicated things like guilt, protectiveness and anger to them. But it is very, very easy to misinterpret what our dogs are saying. Especially without knowledge of how dogs communicate overall.

Dr. Leslie Sinn, DVM from Vet Tech college has the following comments on the subject:

  • “People have to realize that dogs and cats don’t necessarily have a specific language that’s geared towards people.”
  • They use their own inherent language just like I would use English or a French person would use French.”
  • A lot of their communication is body signals or body language”.

That seems pretty straightforward until we look at communicating guilt/being sorry. Many people know the following scenario:

You come home after a tiring day and when you open your door you see your dog in the middle of a big mess. You realize quickly that she’s dumped out the kitchen trash and is EATING IT! Without consciously thinking about it you sigh, move toward the mess with heavy steps and maybe even some grumbling and hand waving. Then you notice your dog’s face, big wide open eyes, chin tilted down, ears falling forward and the front shoulders hunched a bit.

Most of us would think right away that our dog is feeling guilty or sorry for the behavior. The research shows that it is more likely that our dog is simply sensing our frustration. “A 2009 study examined “guilty” canine expressions. Researchers observed dogs and their owners under several sets of circumstances and discovered that dogs tended to display “guilty” body language more frequently when their owners scolded them than when the owners remained neutral – regardless of whether the dogs had actually done anything wrong.

Dog cognition scientist and author Dr. Alexandra Horowitz, who coordinated the research, concluded, “a better description of the so-called guilty look is that it is a response to owner cues, rather than that it shows an appreciation of a misdeed.””

Does this mean that its useless to try to interpret our dogs communication? Not at all. By learning a little about their body language and types of vocalizations both humans and our dogs can benefit. Referring to the Doggie Language chart is a good starting point.

I encourage you to start using this while observing and when interacting with your dog. It is fun as well as helpful for both you and your dog.

For more information or help with dog communication, you can reach me (Tailored Pet Services dog trainer)  two ways: (1) join my Ask a Trainer on Wednesdays or (2) schedule a free call with me.

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