Many people are not aware of the silent, deliberate language that is expressed by dogs through signals and body language. The majority of people notice the louder language, such as barking, growling, snapping, biting, that occurs after the silent body language has not been listened to.
Types of Social Behavior
The types of social behaviors dogs demonstrate can be broadly grouped into either distance decreasing or distance increasing.
- A dog uses distance decreasing behaviors to promote approach, play and continued interaction. A lumbering soft gait, relaxed body and a relaxed face indicate the dog is encouraging interaction. Dogs who want to engage in play will demonstrate the ‘play bow,’ a posture where the dog bows the front of his/her body so that the front legs are parallel to the ground while the hindquarters remain in the standing position, the dog may offer you a paw, lean into you or rub against you.
- Distance increasing signals vary and can be easily misread. The distance increasing signals we all seem to ‘get’ are when a dog stands upright making each part of their body appear as large as possible, weight on the front legs, upright tail, upright ears, piloerection (the hair on their back stands up), and the dog will bark or growl. We seem to instinctively react to these signals and take them as the warning they are.
Misinterpreting Distance Increasing Signals
The distance increasing signals that we commonly misinterpret are the more appeasing behaviors dogs demonstrate. Dogs use these appeasement behaviors to make friendly encounters more reliable and to help them pacify what they anticipate being a hostile encounter if escape is impossible for them. These behaviors are a nonaggressive way to ‘cut off’ conflict. When a dog displays these behaviors, we have to recognize that this is the dog’s way of showing us that they are unsure and a little scared.
You may see appeasement signals in one of two ways.
1. Passive Appeasement. Passive appeasement behaviors are easily misunderstood and are often labelled as ‘submissive.’ Dogs displaying passive appeasement will present themselves in a recumbent position exposing the underside of their body. The dog’s ears are typically back and down against the head and the tail is often tucked between the upper legs. Sometimes the dog will expel a small amount of urine while it waits for the attention to cease.
2. Active Appeasement. The active appeasement dog is often incorrectly labelled as ‘excited’ or ‘overly friendly.’ They will often approach you with the whole rear-end wagging in a “U” shape allowing both its face and genital area to be inspected and they may be desperate to jump up and ‘get in your face’.
For humans then, it is important when meeting and greeting dogs to be able to recognize if a dog is friendly and wanting to greet you or if the dog is experiencing stress or fear.
A conflicted dog will want to approach but is too scared or unsure of the outcome. Their body language will vacillate between displays of distance decreasing behaviors and distance increasing behaviors. Interacting with a dog that is conflicted can be risky. If you make a wrong move and the dog cannot avoid the approach, then they may become aggressive. This is often the case with a fear biter. If a dog is demonstrating ambivalent, mixed signals then it is advisable to avoid sudden movements, and to allow the dog an escape route. Don’t force the meet and greet by moving toward the dog or having the dogs’ owner manipulate the dog toward you.
Learning to Understand Canine Communication
Communication is key to the growth of any relationship as it gives you the level of comfort needed to express yourself honestly and to be heard. Learning to 'speak dog' and understand canine communication:
1. Provides a supportive environment for building confidence and skills, building a trusting relationship. We Provide understanding and the space to build coping skills, rather than just controlling the dog.
2. Helps you build a healthy, strong relationship.
3. Allows you to confidently make choices for the dog. Based on your observations and knowledge, you are better able to understand how the dog is feeling and are therefore able to advocate for the dog in different situations
4. Helps minimize frustration and misunderstanding. For example, a dog may stop walking and start sniffing the ground as it sees something ahead that it does not feel comfortable with. Not realizing the dog is trying to communicate and figure things out, the handler may become frustrated, incorrectly assuming that the dog is being stubborn.
5. Supports the dog's emotional well-being. Listening to the dog goes a long way towards building emotional well-being and confidence.
6. Encourages the dog’s communication skills. When the quieter more subtle signals are ignored or misunderstood, the dog is left with little choice but to communicate with louder language that seems to gain more attention.
If we encourage and reinforce appropriate behaviors, the dog will be less likely to demonstrate inappropriate behaviors such as showing teeth, growling, snapping and potentially biting.
Read A Kids' Comprehensive Guide to Speaking Dog - A fun, interactive, educational resource to help the whole family understand canine communication.
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