Every country around the world has its own language, with English being considered the Universal one. Like we use words to communicate how we feel to those around us, so animals use their body-language and throated sounds. Every species has its own language. Dogs talk constantly, although we don’t hear words coming from their mouths.
Understand Your Dog’s Language
Like we can learn another language, so we can learn to speak dog by simply learning what each of their body-language actions mean.
Because dogs are still instinctual animals they are quickly aroused. With more experience, as they get older, they learn to manage this arousal – they learn the four F’s. These are fight, flight, freeze and – you got it – flirt or fornicate (there’s another word but it’s not appropriate to use here)!
You may have experienced a young dog approach you fast with tail-up, ears-up, sniffing, and then – if there was no threat or warning from you – they may have tried to hump your leg. In young dogs, they’ve not yet experienced enough warnings or conflict resolution situations that serve to make them think twice before doing this.
But as they begin to interact more with other dogs, they learn this through getting nipped, growled at, or reprimanded in some way by the other dog who does not necessarily want to go to third-base immediately!
And so, the special language spoken by dogs is more commonly referred to as calming signals. They learn from one another, through socializing, how to calm the dog they’re facing and themselves before jumping into something that may get them hurt.
These signals are very easy to notice – blatant, if you will. But we often consider these actions to mean nothing, or we presume they mean something that they, in fact, do not.
And here lies the problem. Because we presume their actions mean something other than what they do, we often make wrong choices for them. A good example would be coming home to see the trash-bin upside-down and rubbish everywhere. Where’s the dog? Hiding under the table with his ears pressed back on the top of his head.
He’s heard you call his name in a firm and perhaps punishing tone – ‘Bruno! Was this you?’ He knows that voice. But, unfortunately, he does not remember that he raided the trash-bin an hour ago, and does not have the cognitive ability to understand that you could be upset for something he did an hour ago – something that he can’t really even remember doing anyway.
He only hears you’re angry now. The look he gives you, lying belly-down with his ears pressed back on the top of his head, is not one of guilt. Dogs have no way of feeling guilt; their frontal-lobe is not developed enough, and does not accommodate such human-inspired feelings and notions. He’s got his ears down because he’s heard you’re angry (growling, if you will) and he’s trying to look like a puppy. No one would hurt a puppy, right?
Along with that he may lick his lips, look away, and even begin to scratch. All of those are calming signals that he is using to calm you. He has no idea why you’re angry, but he wants you to calm down.
And this is how they communicate with other dogs as a form of conflict resolution from the start – a kind of ‘Let’s work this out before we both become aroused and follow one of the four F’s’; testing the waters, in a sense.
In truth, after a common situation like this, it will be your responsibility to put the trash-bin somewhere he cannot reach, leave him with toys he can shred and chew when you’re out, train him to remain in his crate (preferably an exercise to be trained from puppy stage), or leave him outside or in an area he can’t get-up to too much mischief. Don’t expect him not to entertain himself while you’re gone; indeed, staring at the wall is not much fun for any living being.
The following are tell-tale signs that your dog is trying to bring calm to a situation, whether in himself or in the one he faces (another dog or you). Keep in mind that although dogs are domestic creatures, they still have the instinct that serves to avoid them getting hurt at all costs. The reason being that, in the wild (still in their instincts), if you get hurt you will become easy prey.
Licking the Lips or Nose
This action tells others ‘I am aware I’m facing a new situation here; I am calm – are you?’ The lick can be very quick and might even be accompanied by a yawn. It’s one of the very first signals dogs give when they see others for the first time. It usually happens just once, after which the dog will move onto another signal if the first one was not enough.
This signal is usually used for situations that make the dog feel uncomfortable; when you’re shouting; there’s loud noises around; someone getting too close for comfort; going to the vet; someone approaching too fast. It can also be used when they’re highly excited and anticipate something that they’re not entirely sure is actually going to happen i.e. seeing you get the keys for the car; ‘Are we going out? Are we? Are we?’
Again this is used when a situation is uncomfortable or uncertain. They are avoiding direct eye-contact which might lead to conflict. When you approach your dog fast with a frown and a scold, he could turn his head i.e. ‘Oh, look over there – that’s more interesting than me, surely?’ Not exactly, but similar!
This is more an act of etiquette among dogs. No dog likes to be approached fast, head-on. To be polite, in a sense, dogs will approach one another at a curve, side-on – they may even walk together in a circle – and if all goes well this may lead to a greeting or butt-sniff! This serves to indicate that ‘I’m not a threat, are you?’
Sniffing the Ground
Yes, dogs sniff the ground often. In most cases they’re checking their pee-mails at public Wi-Fi spots! But sometimes they’ll put their nose to the ground when another dog approaches. In a sense this could be saying ‘We’re on neutral ground, can we keep it that way?’
Bowing to Play
This is like ‘Bingo, I think we’re a perfect fit!’ It can begin with one dog. When the other does the same it shows their intentions are equal and it’s fine to play. Sometimes playtime can get rough; the more they play the more they are aroused and the four F’s kick-in, which can lead to them resorting back to any of the other calming signals to resolve this before anything heads in the wrong direction.
This signal is very important. It means the dog knows full well that there may be a threat present. He is freezing as a way to say ‘I’m not chasing you. Do you have any intention of chasing me?’ It may be accompanied by a lifted paw. As a dog does this, an aggressive dog (one who believes he is the stronger and has a proven record of this) might see it as the opportunity to lurch i.e. ‘Yes, I have every intention of chasing you.’ If both freeze then progress slowly, signaling other calming actions, their meeting will likely be based on mutual agreement or affection.
Dogs that smile often have the sweetest natures, and will likely be submissive rather than brash and aggressive. It is said that this action of lifting the lips and crimpling the eyes serves to protect their head and face. It is often accompanied by the ears being pressed down on the top of their head, assuming puppy-mode again. It does not necessarily mean they are scared, but could be a signal that shows ‘Please don’t hurt me, I’m cute and mean no threat.’
These are some of the more commonly observed calming signals used among dogs as they communicate. Some others include teeth chattering (highly aroused), submissive urination (fear and willingness to submit), walking slowly (cautious) and laying belly-down on the ground (I mean no threat at all).
Never force your dog to interact with other dogs or people when they’re sending out every signal possible to portray their discomfort. Let them work it out themselves, but consider that if every calming signal happens directly one after the other, it could be a sign that they have reached arousal too fast and are about to choose one of the four F’s. If they choose fight or flight (run) things might not end-up so well. Don’t be paranoid about it, just be observant and make clear judgment without adding your personal feelings to the mix.
Now that you understand these signals and how dogs talk, you can use them, too. Don’t be ashamed to lick your lips, yawn, sniff at the ground or go down on your hands and knees to play with your dog. They’ll certainly understand!
Give it a try and let us know if you observe any significant results.