Despite the increasingly important roles that dogs play in our lives many of us still don’t know how to communicate properly with our canine friends nor how to read their body language and understand what they are trying to tell us. For example, many people think a wagging tail means happiness when it can actually mean a host of different things, depending on the height of the tail and the speed of the wag – from relaxed contentment to playful excitement to even aggressive dominance! Thus being able to “talk to” and understand dogs properly not only helps to prevent unnecessary dog attacks and other tragic accidents but also enables you enjoy dogs so much more as the improved communication helps to enhance your relationship.
Dogs communicate with each other all the time through a special body language called “calming signals” which were developed by their ancestors, the wolves, to avoid conflict – essential for survival when animals lived in a pack and had to share space and resources. By displaying calming signals, dogs can placate other dogs and express their peaceful intentions, such as when two strange dogs meet for the first time. Dogs also use calming signals to calm themselves and others in times of stress and anxiety. Thus, by learning to read and even use these signals ourselves, we can safely communicate with our dogs and resolve situations without conflict arising.
So here are some of the most common signals:
Turning Away/ Turning of the Head
Usually a sign that the dog is not comfortable, he will deliberately look away to the side or even turn and face away altogether. Dogs often display this signal when they are approached by something threatening; for example, if you lean over him or hug him close. Humans can use this signal when approached by an over-boisterous dog or even an aggressive one. Just turn your back or avert your eyes from the hostile display – this will often stop the behaviour. In fact, if dealing with a fearful dog, just turning your body away will often encourage the timid dog to approach you whereas directly trying to befriend it can often lead to fear aggression.
Excessive yawning in dogs is not a sign of sleepiness, tiredness or boredom but a sign of stress – for example, when there is great excitement or quarrelling in the family, when you sound angry or when it is feeling excited itself, such as waiting by the front door before a walk. Dogs also yawn when they feel anxious, such as at the veterinary surgery, when they are being approached head-on by someone or when they are feeling overwhelmed, such as when embraced by a child. You can yawn yourself to reassure your dog whenever he seems to be feeling uncertain, worried or scared – or even if you just want him to calm down a bit.
Dogs usually do this when they meet other strange dogs for the first time: instead of walking straight up to meet nose-to-nose, the dogs walk around each other in a curve. Every dog has a different need for personal space – some dogs may need large curves while others may only need a slight distance – this is why tensions often arise when dogs have to meet on leash and are prevented from performing this natural curving behaviour, just allowing the dog to decide what distance feels correct and safe for him. Therefore, if you are approaching a strange dog yourself, it is best to walk around it in a curve rather than straight up to it.
Dogs often slow down as they approach each other, to show that they mean no harm. They also use this to calm a tense situation – this may be why you dog slows down and approaches very slowly if you call him with an irritable voice. The dog may be responding to the hostility in your voice and trying to calm you down, rather than just being disobedient. You can use this signal if you are trying to approach a frightened, insecure dog.
Sniffing the Ground
Dogs will often start sniffing the ground when they feel that they are in an uncomfortable situation – for example, if approached by a stranger that they see as threatening, they may persistently stand with their nose to the ground until the stranger has passed. Although you cannot “sniff” the ground, you can mimic this signal by crouching down and pretending to examine something on the ground, which will reassure an insecure dog.