By Pat Blocker, Colorado Dog Walking Academy Instructor and Owner of Peaceful Paws
It is quite possible that an animal has spoken to me and that I didn’t catch the remark because I wasn’t paying attention. –E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web
“There’s an app for that.” It seems new social media and texting platforms emerge daily with ostensibly new, easier ways to communicate. We often spend hours scrolling and scanning and communicating on a surface level where much can be lost in translation. So much can be misinterpreted and misunderstood without the benefit of voice inflection and body language. Dogs, on the other hand, don’t have electronic social media, but they are social animals, relying instead of iPhones on scent, vocalization, and body language to communicate. And a deeper understanding of canine social interaction to more accurately interpret what dogs are saying to each other and us can mean easier, more peaceful walks.
Instagram has become hugely popular because people appreciate visual communication. A picture is worth a thousand words, right? While dogs relate using vocalization and scent, visual body language is their predominant form of communication. We humans are largely left out of the scent part, so concentrating on understanding the vocal and the visual is imperative.
Social animals like humans and dogs have highly evolved ways of communicating. There is a wide array of varying components to canine body language, such as facial expressions, tail carriage, posture, and overall demeanor. It’s helpful to break these signals down into individual components to understand dogs’ often subtle language. However, because dogs use these signs in concert and in context, a thorough study examines the individual signals as well as the big picture.
Dogs primarily use body language to signal intent. These signals may appear random to us. They are not. They serve to relay the dog’s internal state or they are a purposeful attempt to tell us something. Many of these signals are used to negotiate disputes, navigate potentially conflictive situations, and avoid conflict altogether. Canine body language is a window into the minds and feelings of dogs. Learning the language builds a stronger relationship, because dogs feel understood. Understanding builds trust. As a walker, the trust of your canine charges helps keep you and them safe and happy.
Study canine body language. It is critical for dog walkers to learn to recognize the commonly known signals as well as lesser-known and more subtle ones. Discover the meaning of displacement behaviors. These are normal, familiar behaviors, such as yawning, sneezing, and scratching, done out of context when a dog needs comfort or escape. Learn about ambiguous behaviors where the dog’s actions do not necessarily mirror his intentions. Here we must rely on the whole picture of the dog and the context wherein the behavior occurs.
Know that dogs can feel conflicted and give mixed messages. This is where we must make our best guess as to what the dog is feeling. But simply knowing a dog is feeling conflicted is a big step toward helping him through the uncomfortable situation. If a dog is wagging at an oncoming dog, but also barking, it’s likely he’s experiencing conflict, and that’s a good reason to let him have his space by crossing the street or moving off to the side of a hiking trail.
Aren’t we lucky that dogs don’t use social media and texting? Think of how many times emails or texts are misinterpreted because they lack voice inflection or body language to complete the conversation. Imagine how communications are scrambled when pieces of dialogue are taken out of context.
Learning to communicate with canines builds strong, trusting relationships. It engenders patience and relieves frustration on both ends of the leash. Paying attention to the conversation and understanding it makes for a more enjoyable walking experience.