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
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
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 ( www.APDT.com ) or
The National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors (www.NADOI.org