Dog Communication

Dog communication with humans – is it possible?

Learn to communicate with your dog in a way the dog was created to understand.

Dogs communicate with:

  • vocalizations
  • body language
  • touch
  • scent
Dog communication and behavior displays during play at Huntington Beach Dog Park
Dog communication and behavior displays during play at Huntington Beach Dog Park

Using clear communication is how you let your dog know what you want, if you’re happy, or if you disapprove of the dog’s behavior.

If we pay attention and study how our dogs behave we can learn how to communicate in a way the dog will instinctively understand. One way not to convey this message is with a constant barrage of verbal chatter. Use the dog’s natural instinctive behavior to tell the dog if you are an individual they should follow.

It doesn’t matter what training style you prefer. What we are interested in at this point is, does the dog follow you? It could follow you because of the bond you have with the dog or because you have a treat. In food reinforcement training it’s probably both.

Dog communication and Verbal Behavior
Many people feel their dogs can understand English (language) and that they can explain to the dog like it was a young child. I would disagree and encourage people not to use the explain and coax model of pedagogy with their pets.

It is accepted that dogs do not possess the ability for complex abstract thought that is necessary to understand language. However they do understand parts of language like tone. They can also respond to some rather complex patterns of which language can be a big part.

While studying Chinese I think I may have gotten a glimpse of how a dog might interpret words. In the beginning if I really listened to a conversation, I could understand a very few words. As I became more conditioned, I could pick out more words. I could even understand some when I was not paying attention. However, I did not really know what was being said. I only knew what some of the sounds represented or stood for. I only knew sounds that I was conditioned (trained) to respond to. I did not know the context of how the words where used.

The first step to good communication with your dog is: don’t talk too much. Your canine friends do not spend hours in long verbal conversations with each other.

Dog communicating with vocalization combined with body language that can be seen as positioning and movement.  This photo was taken at a location in Long Beach, CA
Dog communicating with vocalization combined with body language that can be seen as positioning and movement.
This photo was taken at a location in Long Beach, CA

Tone inflection can influence how a dog responds to its owners. It may appear to us that our pets don’t have many different verbal patterns (howling, whining, barking, growling, snorting, crying). However, when we closely listen to many the different canine vocalizations we discover a wide variety of meanings. These verbally communicated meanings are usually indicated by intensity, duration, tempo, and notably, tone inflection.

Barking is perhaps the most common form of vocal communication people associate with dogs. How a dog barks is a language of its own. There are many types of barking from playful barks to threatening barks. Even within a certain categories of barking there are subtle meanings. Threat barking can tell others the dog is afraid or more confident and the likelihood of it actually biting.

When communicating with our pets we should use the tone inflection that is appropriate to the message we’re trying to convey to the pet.

Avoid excessive verbalization with your dog, otherwise your best friend may think that its humans have a whining problem, or maybe it’s a growling problem. Sometime when a dog tries to adapt to their human’s problem they develop some problems of their own. To ignore the dog is better than excessive verbalization.

Dog communication and Body Language

German Shepherd dogs playing. During play we see a lot of communication. This photo was taken at a location in Orange County
German Shepherd dogs playing. During play we see a lot of communication. This photo was taken at a location in Orange County

Dogs are almost always communicating with each other and with their humans. The majority of this communication is through body language. Our problem is that we only understand some of the vocabulary. One of the best ways to start learning how to understand what your dog is trying to communicate to you is to watch the dog. A good obedience training drill for dog watching is the long Sit Stay. You will learn a great deal about your dog from the long Sit Stay. One useful skill you will learn is how to tell when your dog is thinking about getting up. You will also learn what body language your dog uses to communicate mild social stress. If you pay close attention you’ll begin to understand what your dog trying to tell you.

How your dog communicates is particularly evident when you and your dog are stressing each other socially. When you train your pooch, you are teaching the pet how to respond to social stress in an acceptable manner. It’s dog training that gives most people an opportunity to really begin the process of decoding canine communication.

Once you understand your canine companion’s body language you can start to communicate with your best friend in a language they can understand.

We can supplement the dog’s natural language with conditioning (training), that includes verbal and body cues. You are teaching these cues even if you don’t intend to. It’s a good idea to make sure you’re teaching useful behaviors and cues that will enhance your life and the life of your dog.

A big part of understanding and communicating with your dog is understanding where your pet is physically in relation to other living things. Be aware of your pet’s spatial relationship to significant environmental points of reference. I talk more about this in my book Best Friends Learning Together. Basically there are 8 positions that one should be aware of.

 Dogs interacting at Dog beach in Long Beach CA

Dogs interacting at Dog beach in Long Beach CA

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