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How to Speak Dog
Understanding and Communicating with Man's Best Friend

by Paul Owens

As a dog trainer for over 30 years, I have found that one of the major stumbling blocks people have in communicating with their dogs is what I'd call a bit of a superiority complex. We tend to think that, being human, we are the masters of the universe. Many people simply expect their dogs to understand what they say without taking the time to learn to speak dog. Instead of learning the language and customs of dogs, people tend to speak louder and louder and say the same thing over and over, as if volume and repetition magically bridge the communication gap. In short, people expect dogs to speak English. This ignorance comes out in statements like “stupid dog” or “He knows it, he's just being stubborn.”

Dogs communicate with one another through tactile, tonal, and postural body language, which range from the very subtle to the very obvious. This body language can include a look or stare, blinking of the eyes, looking away, licking the lips, yawning, various speeds and locations of a wagging tail, sniffing the ground, scratching, mouthing, pawing, or marking the territory by urinating. Other body language includes the position of the body such as the play bow, turning the back or side to another dog, rolling over on the back, or blocking another dog's movement. Each movement is measured and exact—no more and no less than is absolutely necessary for the particular situation or moment of time. It's pure economy of motion.

Dogs, as well as most other animals, have an amazing ability to notice the subtle movements made by other dogs as well as humans and associate these movements with consequences. They learn associations and connect events with a “what happens when” perspective. That's why it's so important to develop a “clean” precise body language of your own.

When misperceptions lead to insensitivity, both animals and humans suffer. Education is the key to bridging the communication gap—and it also helps to open the heart to our own sensitivity and empathy.

Sometimes a dog's body language isn't very obvious. Just because a tail is wagging, that doesn't mean a dog is friendly. And, conversely, just because the hackles are up, that doesn't always mean a dog is going to bite. All individual body language expressions—the movement and location of the ears, tail, eyes, head, and the stance of the body—have to be taken in the overall context. No one feature can be translated into what's going on in the dog's mind and emotions.

Dogs can and do move from one expression to another in microseconds. Depending on what's going on in the environment, one moment he might be fearful, the next relaxed, and a second later he might bite. It is well worth the effort to attend a few classes and learn the subtle language of canine communication from an experienced trainer.

Dog Etiquette—How to Greet a Dog

Here are some ways to use canine body language in everyday situations when greeting dogs you are meeting for the first time or dogs you don't know well.

1. Keep your breathing easy and relaxed.

2. Until the dog learns to relax or is trained to enjoy “greetings,” don't approach her straight on. Instead, imagine a curve on the ground like the letter “C” and approach along that curve. Once you are close to her, turn to your side rather than facing the dog head-on.

3. When you stop to greet people while on a walk or at your front door, turn to your side. By doing this, your dog will look at the other person as less threatening.

4. Instead of approaching a dog, let the dog come to you. Avoid sudden movements.

5. When greeting a dog, keep your hand down by your side.

6. Once you determine that the dog isn't feeling threatened, approach to pet him with your hand under the chin where he can see where your hand is going, not over his body. Then pet him gently on the chest or on the side of the face, away from the ears and eyes. Don't ever reach over the dog's body to pet him on the top of the head or back until you know him well and are sure he enjoys being petted there.

7. Avoid eye contact.

8. Speak in a friendly and relaxed voice.

Children should be supervised when interacting with dogs, even when the dogs are members of their own family. Seventy-five percent of the dog bites sustained by children are by dogs familiar to them. In some cases, if a dog has food or a toy, and a child comes into his personal space, he may feel the need to protect it and that protection could manifest in biting. Dogs should be allowed to eat in peace but for safety purposes they should also be educated to allow family members to reach into their bowl at any time. It is also important that we teach children to respect dogs and not to tease them with food or toys.

If your dog is aggressive or has moderate-to-severe behavioral problems, a professional trainer is needed. Always err on the side of safety. You can learn a lot about positive dog training from books and DVDs. However, it can be fun to join a group class. Because many dog trainers still teach methods that include physical force, I suggest interviewing the trainer before hiring him or her. You can find a trainer who uses positive training methods through the Association of Pet Dog Trainers ( ) or The National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors ( ).

About the Author:
Paul Owens
Author: The Dog Whisperer DVD and the book: The Dog Whisperer,
A Compassionate Nonviolent Approach to Dog Training
Certified by The Association of Pet Dog Trainers
Endorsed by the National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors
Director: Raise with Praise, Inc. Dog training

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