Dog Communication – All They Lack Is Speech
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Dog Communication – All they Lack is Speech

I have received a letter from a friend that asks a question about dog communication which I want to share.

…I’d like to ask a simple question: “Do dogs communicate with us?” I am not a dog expert nor do I think that my dogs are geniuses, but in my relationship with my two dogs I have always given them the message that I’m always available for them, a message they have fully understood. So often enough they call me asking me to follow them because they need my help to solve a given problem. Obviously I’m talking about minor issues: one dog wants me to open the hose so that it can drink, or I get called because one dog stole the other one’s bone. When we are out on a walk they “ask” me to take a specific road by sitting down and staring at the road they’d like to go on.

I have always had the feeling that my dogs make an effort to try and learn my language, my words, my body language and they “listen” to me. Why shouldn’t I listen to them? So we have learnt this way of communicating between ourselves and I have the feeling that we do a good job of it. So the question now is: “Do dogs communicate with us” and how much do we try to listen to them and understand what they are trying to tell us?

dog communicationThe answer is yes, dogs communicate with us and in the cases mentioned in the letter, the dogs are going beyond simple communication, they are actually training the owner. You have to be very careful when a simple dog communication becomes a specific request such as “I’m thirsty open the hose” or “Let’s walk down this road, rather than on the other one”. Because in these specific cases the dogs are giving orders and the owner is obeying. This is wrong because the basic dog training rules state that dogs should obey to a command BEFORE they make a specific request. So if a dog asks you to open the hose because it wants to drink, the dog should first respond to a specific command such as sit, after which you can acknowledge its request for water. If this is not the case, the dog might think it can overrule you and thus position itself on a higher hierarchical position. This is the basic rule which I tend to reinforce to puppy and young dog owners, but there are some exceptions.

I used to be very strict with the application of this rule, but nowadays I think common sense must prevail: primarily when highlighting the difference between “command” and “communication” and between “impose” and “ask”. If we are dealing with adult dogs and this type of communication is the result of a long coexistence and a deep mutual understanding between dog and owner, then it all depends on how the dog’s request is made. If the dog asks kindly then you can also be a little softer and avoid reiterating your higher hierarchical status. In other words, once your status has been established it is not so essential for your dog to answer “Yes sir!” every time you address it. We are talking about family not military life.

Even children must also follow family rules and obey their parents, but if they ask politely, “I finished my homework, I can go out and play?” you can answer yes, without too many complications. If the child were to say “I’m sick of doing my homework, so I want to go out and play” then it would be a completely different story.

Yes, I know that I should not anthropomorphize, but it is true that sometimes dog behaviors are similar (approximately) to those just described by children.

So even with dogs, our reaction should depend on how the action is performed (in this case, the request). On one hand you must not allow your dog to “train you”, but on the other you should not behave like the sergeant in Full Metal Jacket.

Back to the original question: does our dog communicate with us? The answer is Yes!

Do we understand dog communication? Not always

dog communicationDogs communicate in a “human way” only after a long time spent together with us and having “studied” the way we communicate. Unfortunately for dogs, our communication is primarily verbal which makes the task harder for them; luckily for them, even if we are not conscious about it, we communicate with our mimic facial expression and through body language. Dogs study human behavior for months, or even years, in order to understand all the signals that we send; once they have unraveled our “code” they try to communicate with us using those same signals. Unfortunately, we are unaware of the signals we send out when we communicate, so we sometimes fail to understand our dogs.

The signs we are able to read correctly, are only the most obvious ones such as a “smile”, which represents a big communication effort on behalf of the dog. Dogs are so incredible in trying to make their feelings comprehensible for humans, that they shows us their teeth as a sign of friendship, which would normally be a sign of aggression for them. Sometimes they don’t do a good job out of it and some people get scared when dogs show their teeth, but we must appreciate the effort!

Smiling, in my opinion, is the most striking demonstration of how dogs strive to communicate with us, as well as an indication of their brilliant intelligence. There is no doubt that dogs understand our body language perfectly and try to imitate it: and I think that they feel very frustrated when they realize that we remain totally indifferent to their attempts of communication.

Driven by sheer frustration, I believe that many dogs end up barking like crazy because, not being able to communicate with us they way they would like, they tend to “shout at us”, trying to communicate through “words”, considering that we understand only verbal communication. I also believe that many of the dogs who bark for no apparent reason, are simply trying to stop us from repeating the same old phrase “dogs lack speech”.

It is true that they cannot talk … but they still have an extremely complex and exhaustive “vocabulary”: and in addition, they strive to use a part of our own, at least that which concerns the body language.

So yes dogs communicate with us but unfortunately for them we sometimes are a deaf audience.


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