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April 2000

Dog Speak

Recently, I received as a gift a book called Dog Speak, by Bash Dibra. The book covers several topics, including how to select the right dog for you, how to train your dog, and how Mr. Dibra learned more about Dog Speak while raising and training a wolf to work in Hollywood. The sections that discussed the language of dogs (Dog Speak) particularly interested me, and I summarize the information in this article.

Dogs can understand our moods, facial expressions and body language. If we can't do the same for them, they might wonder what is wrong because the communication link that they would establish with another dog is not made with us. When we don't understand our dog's communications, we miss out not only on vital information about our dog's state of mind, but also on a chance to establish a deeper bond with our canine family member.

The language of dogs came from the language of wolves, which revolves around the social interaction of the pack and the actions necessary to survive. Dog speak consists of genetically encoded "pack behaviors" handed down from the dog's wolf ancestors. These behaviors are used to communicate the dog's moods, thoughts, and feelings. We need to understand these pack behaviors and work within them to discover what our dogs are "saying" and to train our dogs properly.

Mr. Dibra discusses eight factors of pack behavior. They are

1. Dominance Hierarchy

The success of a wolf pack -- how it lives, hunts, breeds, and socializes -- depends upon a strong leader (the Alpha dog, which is normally a male but can also be a female). The leader decides who goes where, who eats when, and who is a pack member. Alphas are challenged by would-be alphas and must keep the pack under tight control. They will use force if necessary. Although this arrangement may not suit our democratic beliefs, it provides security and continuity to the pack. The pack members expect and need this structure.

You want to be the alpha in your "pack". By being the alpha, you will be able to control your dog and you will make your dog much happier than if you were not a strong leader. However, if you have a dog with alpha tendencies, you may find your leadership role challenged by your own dog. In this situation, you must stand firm.

2. Aggression

Aggression is a deeply engrained instinct. This behavior allows a pack to establish its territory, protect its food supply, and drive away predators. But we cannot have aggressive dogs; consequently, owners need to learn the first signs of aggression (using Dog Speak), to be able to quickly take charge of the situation and stop the aggression.

3. Territorial Behaviors

A pack marks its territory to keep others out. The typical behaviors are urinating to mark the boundary, barking to alert pack members to intruders, and aggression to keep intruders out.

4. Food Guarding

In the wild, if a wolf doesn't guard its food, it goes without. Dogs will naturally want to guard their food. But aggressive food guarding toward you or other family members should not be permitted and should be stopped through proper training.

5. Flight Behavior

Usually when something unknown or potentially dangerous approaches a wolf, it flees (better safe than sorry). Dogs can also show this flight behavior by running away in reaction to a sudden loud noise, for example. Because a dog could run off in front of a car, you should keep your dog on a leash and under control.

6. Chase Behavior

Wolves automatically chase something that runs from them -- a necessary behavior for a hunter. Dogs will do this too, which is why they love to chase balls, Frisbees, sticks, etc. But we must control this chase instinct if the dog decides to run after children, joggers, bicyclists or other inappropriate targets.

7. Socialization

Dogs need companionship, affection, and time to play to be happy and healthy. Dogs kept isolated will become very unhappy and could develop problem behaviors like becoming destructive, excessive barking, or aggressive.

8. Vocalization

Wolves have many sounds that communicate a vast array of meanings, and so do dogs. Within limits these vocalizations are acceptable behavior in a dog, but excessive barking or yapping should be addressed with training.

These eight factors provide a framework for your dog's interaction and communication with the world. For example, if your dog growls when you come near his food dish, you know that he is expressing a normal pack behavior -- food guarding. Of course, your dog should not growl at you so you need to address this problem. But knowing that the problem is excessive food guarding, you can be assured that your dog is not suddenly becoming a vicious dog in general. Mr. Dibra discusses how to teach a dog to stop excessive food guarding, as well as other inappropriate behaviors. If your dog has some type of excessive behavior, contact a dog trainer and find out what you can do to correct your dog properly.

The elements of Dog Speak

Dogs use their bodies as well as their vocalizations to communicate. The body language consists of several primary elements: eyes, ears, muzzle, tail, and stance. The combination of these elements (along with vocalization, when the dog uses it) will allow a dog to communicate a precise message.

Mr. Dibra describes a number of combinations; here are a few:

The ears are pricked up, and turned outward. (If your dog has droopy or floppy ears, look at the part of the ear next to the head. That part will be raised and the earflap will be held slightly outward.) The eyes are wide and alert looking. The mouth is closed to allow sniffing (and possibly the dog is sniffing). This combination tells you that your dog has heard something and is trying to identify who or what is there.

The ears are rotated back and close to the head. The eyes are narrowed. This could mean either fear or an advanced stage of aggression. Which is it? If the eyes are staring, it is aggression. If the eyes are looking away, it is fear. In both cases the muzzle might also be showing a snarl (fear often imitates aggression), but the eyes and the posture will tell you which it is.

If a dog approaches and you see that he holds his head and tail high, with his ears erect, body up to full height, walking perhaps a little stiffly, you are watching an alpha dog head your way. If you also are walking your alpha-wanna be, be careful, and keep your dog well under control. You may see that both dogs' tails are wagging and think everything will be OK. But some tail wagging is actually a sign of aggression, not friendliness. If the tail is carried high and the wags are quick and abrupt, that's aggression.

Submissive dogs communicate that fact by having a lower tail and head, and by not walking so proudly. They may also nuzzle or lick a more dominant dog in the muzzle. Very submissive dogs and puppies might wag their tail with it between their legs.

Dogs can also say they are in a relaxed, happy mood with their bodies. If their ears (or the part next to their head) is pricked up and forward, the eyes open and eager, the mouth open and relaxed (perhaps with a little panting), and the tail carried in a moderate-to-low (depending on the breed) angle (a relaxed position), the dog is saying "Hey, how are you? I'm glad to see you. What do you want to do today?"

In addition to body language, dogs will use their range of growls, whines, barks, yips, etc., to communicate their message. Again, use the vocalization in combination with the dog's body language to determine what he or she is thinking. For example, if your dog is growling a low growl is that an expression of dominance or play? If your dog has other aggressive signs (eyes staring, for example), it is aggression. If your dog has been giving you play bows, the growl is all in fun.

 

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As you can see just from this summarization, dogs can communicate a wide range of thoughts and feelings with their bodies and their voices. To us, the vocabulary of Dog Speak -- the position of the ears, muzzle, tail, etc., and the vocalizations, might be confusing. If you take time to observe your dog closely in all his or her moods, however, you will learn the dialect of Dog Speak that your dog uses. You might think this will be too difficult or time consuming, but it is not. And, as Mr. Dibra says, "In my life, dogs have been the greatest gift I ever could have received." Therefore, it is worth it to us to take the time to learn their language and to improve our communication with these wonderful animals.