What can we communicate and how?
Dogs communicate a tremendous amount of information to other dogs through scent and sound, but we as humans still don’t know how to use that effectively. Human language can be expressive (stub your toe, nobody in the room) or communicative (giving instructions), the observable behavioral language of dogs is both.
Observable behavior in dogs is communicative, it is expressive, and it is indicative of their internal chemical state. All dog behavior is communicative, it is up to us to learn that language. Canine behavior must be interpreted in context – any description of behavior taken out of context is meaningless at best.
How can you use this knowledge to strengthen and deepen the bond with your dog, and what are the benefits of doing that? Once you understand what your dog is trying to tell you, you now have clues to his or her affective state, emotional condition, and thought process. That is the starting point for deeper engagement.
How To Read Signals
1) Always keep context at the front of your mind.
2) Look at the whole dog. When in doubt, look at the end that bites.
3) Keep in mind that dogs are capable of ambivalence.
4) Their internal state can change very quickly.
5) One way to understand behavior is as distance increasing or distance decreasing signals.
6) There are lots of variations between breeds, get to know yours.
7) Communication is reciprocal; they cannot use your language, but you can use theirs.
8) Dogs will let you know when they are under stress. Short term, immediate stress looks different than long-term chronic stress, both are potentially dangerous for you and the dog.
9) Understand communicative behavior on a continuum;
Affiliation <> Appeasement <> Avoidance <> Threats <> Aggression
Affiliative: Licking, wiggling, soft mouth, soft eyes, blinking, “puppy face,” paw lift, jumping, play bow, greeting grin, leaning, sitting or laying close, muzzle nudge, requests for contact.
Appeasement (or pacifying): Looks like affiliation, but posture and intent is different. Also very slightly different from submissive behavior. Tail is likely low and wagging wide, Clear signals are being sent, “I’m not a threat, I don’t want to fight.” Displacement behaviors such as yawning, scratching, sniffing, tongue flicks, and looking away could be included. Intended to prevent aggression that might happen but isn’t happening yet. These can have an affiliative function, particularly in greetings with strangers they are uncertain of, and they can have a preemptive disarming function.
Avoidance: Somewhat like appeasement, but intensified. Tongue flicks, looking away, sniffing the ground intently where nothing was interesting a minute ago, yawning, but the overall posture is sending the message “I don’t want anything to do with this.” They may move away from you, or look like they are about to try to get you to move away from them. Submission can be seen as an avoidance function, the classic (and extreme) example is the dog that rolls over on its back.
Where avoidance ends and threats start, like all of this, is debatable, but watch carefully for signs of extreme stress, particularly the “whale eye” and perhaps the most misunderstood, the “freeze.”
Threats: Fairly self explanatory, take threats seriously. Watch for “hard eyes” (most people recognize this when they see it, that’s what it looks like), of course growls and display of teeth, and the “agonistic pucker” – when the commissure comes forward toward the front of the mouth. Recognize that dogs are entirely capable of ambivalence, so “fight, flight, or freeze” can change from one to another very quickly. A dog that is attempting to retreat and feels like it cannot do so is able to bite just as hard as one that is attacking. A dog that has “frozen” can initiate a bite much faster than a human can move away.
Aggression: There are at least a dozen classifications of aggression, I have seen more. The important part is all dogs bite and all bites hurt, the finer points of classification are then irrelevant except to your trainer.