Canine Communication

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Posted by Pets Best on 3/13/2006 in Training Tips Articles

If it’s true that 80% of communication is non-verbal, it stands to reason that we could learn quite a bit from our canine friends. Since the beginning of the man-dog relationship, dogs and wolves have proven to be expert communicators through their use of body language, facial expressions and vocalizations. Turid Rugaas, a Norwegian dog trainer with over fifteen years experience studying wolves, has discovered over thirty calming signals that can easily be recognized and used by humans to directly communicate with our canine companions.

In her book On Talking Terms with Dogs, Rugaas shares her insights on the fascinating world of communication between dogs, as well as between dogs and their owners. “We need to learn to understand the language of dogs so that we can understand what our dogs are telling us,” Rugaas says. “That is the secret of having a good life together.”

One signal that is commonly misunderstood in the human-canine connection is the dog’s use of the yawn. Rather than signifying that he is tired or bored, the yawn is a coping mechanism used when the dog feels threatened. When a threat is received, according to Rugaas, the dog will always respond with a calming signal such as yawning, licking his nose or turning away, among others.

Unfortunately, she says, a large majority of dog owners ignore these signals, creating stress, anxiety and even aggression in their pets. Rather than help the situation, correction and punishment only further complicate the human-canine relationship, so understanding is key.

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“The dog may yawn when someone bends over him, when you sound angry, when there’s yelling and quarreling in the family, when the dog is at the vet’s office, when someone is walking directly at the dog, when you ask the dog to do something he doesn’t feel like doing, when your training sessions are too long and the dog gets tired, and in many other situations,” Rugaas says. What he’s really telling us is, “Please understand me.”

“These signals are international and universal. Dogs all over the world have the same language. A dog from Japan would be understood by an Elkhound who lives in an isolated valley in Norway. They will have no communication problems!”

The trouble then is not so much dog to dog, but dog to human. With our sweeping gestures and loud voices, too often we send our dogs into a state of panic where they struggle to communicate with us through calming signals. Even young puppies will display the use of calming signals in the hopes of communicating uncertainty or fear. And we thought that all that sniffing at the vet’s office was just out of curiosity!

Strengthening the animal-human relationship is not easy, but it is most certainly possible, especially with a little patience and a better understanding of what our four-legged friends are trying to say.


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