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Using Nonverbal Communication to Connect With Your Dog

Some people believe that training a dog is a process of asserting dominance over a lesser being, teaching dogs to obey our human will. People who think this way are often under the impression that a dog who doesn’t follow the rules or do what is asked of them is trying to one-up his or her “master” and that he or she “knows better” when he or she is “bad.” They believe dogs’ natural hierarchy predisposes them to a sort of Game of Thrones type of lifestyle, and our only hope is to show them who is boss.

To anyone who has studied psychology or animal behavior, the mindset above is terribly misguided. Dogs are sentient beings and certainly have natural tendencies of their own and often these natural inclinations stray from ours. So when dogs behave as dogs, it is generally not because they are trying to take over, but rather because we haven’t properly clued them in and prepared them to live peacefully among the humans.

When we talk about socializing dogs, it actually has very little to do with teaching a pup to get along with others of their kind. Nearly all dogs are born knowing how to be a dog. Rather, socialization is about teaching puppies how to acclimate to our environment and expectations after we’ve invited them into our homes. Similarly, dog training is really nothing more than a language that allows for cross-species communication. It’s a tool we can use to explain to dogs how best to behave in order to live a less stressful life among a different tribe.

In learning the “language” of dog training, dogs become proficient at reading our intentions and the outcome of various common scenarios. They learn to respond to certain verbal cues with time, repetition, and consistent rewards or punishments. However, they do not ever actually learn to comprehend human language, and they most certainly do not learn to speak in human tongue. For the most part, even much of what we think they understand in the form of verbal cues, in actuality is often a response to the context of the situation (we humans are great creatures of habit) or to our tone and body language. Partially this is because body language is a more familiar tool for communication for dogs. Body language is the primary way dogs communicate with each other. This is where they shine.

So in this way, dogs do talk to us. All of the time. If you pay attention to your dog and take time to consider his or her behavior rather than react, you’ll see that communication goes both ways. In addition to body language and proximity, dogs do also vocalize a bit when communicating with each other and how we (mis)interpret these vocalizations often gets dogs into trouble. For instance, lots of dogs growl when playing. Yet other times, a growl is an escalation of urgency to bring clarity to a situation when understated forms of canine communication are ignored or go unnoticed.

When your dog is uncomfortable with something you are doing or with something/someone in the environment, he or she may tell you in several different ways. Below are some of the most common signs your dog doesn’t like what’s going on.

One of the most-subtle signs of discomfort from a dog can be orientation. For example, if you are getting ready to wipe your pup’s paws, clip her nails, or groom her and you grab a foot, a tail, or place a hand on her rump and she turns her head around quickly to either mouth or lick you, or collapse to the ground as she turns toward the offending hand, she may be uncomfortable with the touch. It might be time to slow things way down and teach her to love being handled and groomed.

A yawn can also be a sign of stress, as can panting.

Another subdued way a dog will tell you she doesn’t like something or someone is avoidance. This can be mild, such as turning her head away from the offending or frightening situation, or as obvious as leaving the area, making wide circles, or refusing to come when called. (Think bath time, crate time, or not saying hello to a stranger versus not coming when called out of the middle of a play session at the park.)

More overt signs of upset, discomfort, or fear are barking, lunging, growling, or snapping. Of course, usually people do notice these more assertive types of communication.

Unfortunately, these more assertive types of communication often occur because the other more subtle body language and proximity signals listed above were unnoticed, ignored, or even punished. Humans tend not to recognize subtlety in dogs who try to communicate their feelings politely and then punish dogs who’ve been pushed to use stronger “words” to convey their opinions.

So in this month of gratitude, I’d like you to take a moment to observe and listen to what your dog may be telling you, and to thank him or her for also doing his or her part to bridge the communication gap by talking to you in his or her native language.

Kelly Gorman Dunbar is director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior, where she recruits and trains for SIRIUS Puppy & Training,, the family business.


Main article photo by: GlobalIP-istock