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Dog Language: Understanding Dog Talk

Understanding Puppy "Dogma"

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Dog Language: Understanding Dog Talk

Rolling onto his back "cries uncle" in puppy language.

© Amy Shojai, CABC

Dogs are social creatures that live together, and so they need a dog language in order to get along. How dogs communicate—what I like to call “dogma”—is based on a system of common signals.

Your cute puppy’s ancestors survived by forming packs that hunted together, communally protected young, and defended territory from outsiders. And while two individuals can get along, the more individuals added to a group increase the chance of arguments. Constant fights and injuries weaken the group. Survival depends on every dog—and puppy—in the group staying healthy and productive.

Dog language not only allows dogs to communicate and understand each other. It also is a system used for conflict resolution, including calming signals that head off fights. In fact, once you understand how dogs communicate and the way they interpret your verbal and silent body language, you can learn how to talk to your puppy.

How Dogs Communicate

Canine communication is a complex system of sign language, vocalization, and even scent cues. These signals reinforce the dog's social position within the group.

Dogs are pretty flexible with members of their family group. That’s why it’s so important to socialize your puppy early and continue throughout his or her life. Your dog considers you—and other people and pets in the household—to be a part of his family group, and acts accordingly.

Why Understanding Dog Language Matters

Most behavior problems arise from normal dog behaviors. For instance, eating poop and targeting things that smell like you for puppy chewing are normal dog behaviors. From your puppy’s perspective, he’s done nothing wrong. And when you get upset with him, he communicates the only way he know show—with puppy language.

If your relationship is to reach its full potential, it is important that you understand what he’s saying so that you can teach him what you want. Don’t expect puppies (or adult dogs for that matter) to automatically understand and read your mind. Puppies make behavior mistakes because they don’t know any better.

Kinds of Canine Communication

Compared to your puppy, humans are hearing-deaf and scent-blind. That makes it impossible for us to understand some of these subtle signals of canine language. But by paying attention to the vocal cues we can hear and watching body language, we can learn to interpret the more obvious canine signals.

Dogs evolved with an ability and fascination of paying close attention to the humans they love. So your puppy will meet you halfway, given a chance, and learn a large human vocabulary, particularly when words are used with consistency.

Dogs use vocalizations, scent, and body language alone or in combination. Each type of communication has advantages and disadvantages.

Sound carries over long distances. Howls, barks, yips, snarls, growls and more are included in the “dogma” repertoire. However, a bark may alert adversaries as well as pack members, so it’s not effective for stealth communication.

While a vocalization can only be sustained one breath at a time, a body posture can be held nearly forever. Dogs “talk” with their ears, eyes, body posture, fur elevation, tail semaphore and more.

Scent signals don’t require the dog’s presence to get a message across. “Pee-mail” can be left behind for others to read the way people leave messages on the answering machine.

Dogs use combinations of each technique to communicate meaning. Very basically, canine communication is used to either decrease the distance between individuals with signals that ask for attention—a wagging puppy tail, for example—or to increase distance between individuals with warning signals such as growls.

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