Certified Canine Behaviourist & Certified Professional Dog Training Instructor
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Communicating with Dogs
How do dogs communicate?
Dogs communicate by Scent, Body Language and Sound in that order. We Humans communicate by Sound, Body Language and well as for scent, we know Mum’s cooking Beef Stew, our dogs know that it’s a pot of Beef, Water, salt, garlic, potatoes, carrots, onions etc. Their scenting abilities far out ways ours, but we need to know and understand that scent is their first and foremost method of communication.
For example dog trainers and professional handlers have known for years that whatever you are feeling goes down the leash to your dog. Well now science has now confirmed that, in that our pheromones Scent changes dependant on our moods. Science can not yet tell the level of that mood but agrees that our dogs can smell the slightest change in the level of our moods. For example your dog knows from across the room if that lottery ticket you are looking at is for $50, $500, or $5,000 or if you just hit the jackpot and won millions, without a sound or movement, you dog will realise that your level of joy has increased, just by the change in your pheromones i.e. scent.
So scent is an important part in working with dogs. Thus the use of treats for training, the scent of the treat gains your dogs attention, the more they like the scent, the more focused they will be on what you are trying to get them to do. For example a small piece of Rollover, gets their attention, but something else around them is happening and the scent of the Rollover is not enough to focus them on you, so you bring out their next level of favourite treat let’s say it’s cheese, now that distraction is not strong enough to distract them from you as you now have cheese a scent they know and like more than Rollover.
A dog barks furiously at the window, no amount of shouting seems to get through to him, yet you wave a piece of cheese in front of his nose and he immediately turns towards you. So scent is a major component of working with dogs.
Your scent is crucial, i.e. your mood. If you are anxious, nervous, angry your dog may not know why, but knows something is wrong at that moment and reacts to that. A classic example of that is a dog that reacts at the sight of another dog on the walk. Your dog would have smelt that dogs approach before you saw him, but he’s reacting at the sight of it, because you just saw it and thought “Oh No he’s going to act up again here comes another dog”, your scent changed, your dog reacted. OR You’ve entered a dog competition, Agility, Confirmation etc, you felt fine happy confident until it’s your turn in the ring, you get nervous or anxious and your previously calm contented dog starts to act-up, because your scent just changed.
Now some dogs use their nose more, because of breed traits or are just proficient using their nose, some dogs do loose this main ability, but they all had it working full out when born, because that’s the only way for them to find their mother’s teat and feed. All dogs are born Blind and Deaf, their ears and eyes do not start to open until about 3 weeks. So their first view of their new world is by scent. We humans are born with full hearing and our eyes though open, do not focus well as yet. So here lies the main difference in how we as Humans and Dogs communicate.
What’s Body Language
Body language includes how we stand, use of hand signals, footwork and facial expressions.
Too be effective you need to know about dog’s body language, what those different stances mean, how the ears are positioned, what the tail is doing. A common misconception is a dog that is wagging his tail is happy, this is not always so. Dogs move their tails in different patterns, often hard for us as humans to see, but other dogs of the same breed easily recognise these differences. Dogs of other breeds notice common threads, but may confuse a tail signal, as it’s not familiar to them. I.E. Dogs with cropped tails, dogs with long fur on their tails etc, can affect the viewing of the message the tail is giving. The same goes for ears, so dogs that are well socialized with different breeds as puppies learn that tail and ear signals can give mixed messages, and thus would rely on Scent and the rest of the body stance and even the use of sound to fully interpret the message being given.
With so many different breeds, thus so many different tail and ear shapes and sizes, dogs will rely on what the rest of the body is doing, to confirm what the body language means.
So what are the basics that dogs use that we can interpret?
Standing tall and square, making the body appear as big as it can be, is a way of declaring you are Large and In Charge, very confident, self assured.
Making yourself as small as possible, means you are unsure, afraid, and not confident.
Our dogs see us moving around all day, and thus know that confident stance and that unsure stance, our scent at these times confirms their interoperation of these positions.
What about hand signals and footwork
Well, this is part and parcel or an adjustment to the reading of ears and tails and also comes down to the selective breeding we did down from the original wolves to the many breeds we have today. We selectively breed those that watched us all of us, not just our overall body language but all those other appendages we have. A recent study also proved that Dogs are the only species to recognise how we use our eyes, even our closest genetic cousin the great apes cannot make the association that if our eyes are closed we cannot see, but dogs can and do, notice and connect this.
The other part that ties in with hand signals and foot work is to do with sound, as our sound can be inconsistent and the moving of a hand/arm/foot/leg is more consistent.
So what is sound all about?
First and foremost is for you to acknowledge that dogs do not learn to speak or understand any human language what so ever. They are not sitting because you said did, they are sitting because when you made that sound and they put their bum on the floor you rewarded the behaviour. This statement also lets you know why your dog sometimes does not sit on command, he/she has yet to learn that the sound you just made also means Sit, and here is where hand signals come into play, they recognise the hand signal but not the sound, and therefore rely on the body language (hand signal) to interoperate the sound. A reason why, dogs respond to hand signals and footwork, better than voice commands. As your voice, sound, tone may change when saying Sit, your hand signal remains the same.
So here are the basics on sound; dogs have sounds that indicate a mood or need. The Bark, The Growl, The Whine.
So we need to understand that our sound i.e. tone needs to match what we are communicating by scent and body language.
The Growl when issued by a dog is a warning or correction sound tone it is Low, Deep and quiet, so when you want your dog to know you do not approve and or unhappy or angry your tone needs to be Low, Deep and quiet from your normal everyday tone.
The Deep Bark a warning or alerting tone.
The High Pitched Bark means excitement or an invitation to play and/or overall happiness.
I am sure you have all noticed these different types of sounds coming from dogs, even the smallest dog can issue a low deep tone of warning for his/her size. In larger breeds is it more distinct change in tone between happy let’s play bark or back away warning bark.
So we as humans need to match our tone to our message. A very common mistake we make and one that is natural for us as humans to do, is raise our voices when angry, shout or yell, what you need to understand in this case that as Humans when we do this we actually go up an octave from our normal speaking tone and our dogs excellent hearing picks this up.
A classic example is – You find your dog shredding the couch – You get angry (scent), you bend towards the dog (unsure, or even play invitation), You way a finger or shake a fist (rapid irregular movement invitation to play), you shout or yell (you go up an octave from normal tone – Praise or Play tone).
Now if you communicated by scent, body language and sound, what you would smell is anger, what you see and here is lets play, confusing isn’t it. And that’s the look your dogs gives you, not one of guilt but one of appeasement, Calm down your not making sense are you mad or do you want to play.
When you match your sound and body language to your scent, your dog can understand what you are trying to communicate with him/her.