The way dogs communicate with each other has plenty of implications for the way they communicate with us. It’s important to remember that dogs need to communicate with humans very differently than they do with other dogs, and it can be difficult for dogs to learn how to do this successfully.
When you teach your dog something, they are essentially learning from someone speaking an entirely different language. Not only is the language barrier significant, but the customs and habits vary drastically from one another as well. Just like how different cultures have different customs, dogs have their own set of communication skills that don’t necessarily coincide with what people might read them as!
We’ll start with verbal communication. Not because it is the most important to dogs, but because it is the most important to people. In fact, dogs verbal communication skills differ vastly from humans, and their primary means of communicating with one another do not involve sounds nearly as much as one might assume.
That’s not to say that dogs don’t communicate verbally. They most certainly do! However, their primary forms of communication occur much more subtly. We will discuss them later. By the time dogs escalate to verbal communication they are relatively agitated, whether through excitement, fear, aggression, or some other emotional response.
However, another major factor in canine communication is the fact that verbal communication with dogs does not involve vocabulary and direct language. When dogs communicate verbally, they do so through vague representations of emotion. Dogs barking at one another aren’t chatting about the weather and having an in-depth conversation.
The primary consequence of this is that when humans attempt to communicate with dogs using vocabulary, it can take quite some time for dogs to understand what you are trying to tell them. This is where training comes in. With our Dog Savvy Course, we focus on helping you learn how to communicate with your dog more effectively, and how to teach your dog what specific words mean (AKA verbal commands).
Many pet owners fail to actually teach their dogs verbal commands as much as they teach their dog a hand signal or even just to anticipate that you want them to sit or lie down when you have a treat. As a dog trainer I’ve seen it quite frequently. You pull out a treat, and whether you say a command or not the dog goes through the commands they know. They sit, and then lie down, and then roll over, etc. Teaching your dog to actually understand the words you say takes time and patience!
People use body language to communicate with one another, but not nearly as much as they rely on verbal communication. Dogs are the opposite. They use lots of small postures and signals to communicate with other dogs. They also attempt to do the same with people, who rarely pick up on the signals they are trying to give.
Sure, most people can understand the blatant ones to some extent. They see a wagging tail and think “happy dog!” because that’s what they’ve been generally taught. While happy dogs do wag their tail, a wagging tail doesn’t necessarily always mean a friendly dog.
You see, while people expect dogs to learn our language and understand what we say to them, most don’t attempt to reciprocate that communication. But learning a dog’s body language can be important for many different reasons. Dog communicate pain, aggression, fear, and a variety of other emotions through their body language. When you can read that body language you are more likely to understand what your dog needs.
Body Language and Fear
One important example of how people can impact their training because they don’t understand canine body language is seen commonly with fearful dogs. The first thing the average person does when a dog approaches them is bent over and put their hand out, looking at the dog and usually talking to them as well.
However, when you have a fearful dog, your guest bending over the top of them, facing them directly, looking directly at them, and talking to them all the while, all communicate intimidation and potential aggression.
That’s why it’s important for you to quickly seek help if your dog has more severe behavioral problems like fear or aggression, using programs like our Ask The Trainer. This allows our trainers to work directly with you and explain potential miscommunications that might be happening and other small detail that you might overlook.
Scents and Canine Communication
Another important form of communication for dogs, and one that we very rarely use ourselves, is the sense of smell. Sure, some people can subconsciously communicate with one another using smell, via pheromones that we don’t realize we are smelling or perfumes that we put on to purposefully give off a specific scent, but we don’t use scent to communicate specific things like other animals do.
Dogs communicate many things through smell. They can comprehend various factors about other dogs through scent, including their sex, how long ago they were at a specific location, what their “breeding status” is if the dog is a female and more.
A dog’s keen sense of smell is one of the reasons why people struggle with leash walking. People just can’t comprehend the amount of stimulation a dog walks into when they walk outside. It’s essentially the equivalent to trying to listen to a conversation in a room full of people talking loudly. Not impossible, but certainly quite difficult.
Communication is Key
Despite the various hurdles you might face, communication is key for proper training. You need to be able to both communicate with your dog, and also understand their communication back to you. We can improve our training and our dog’s behavior only through better understanding of our dog and their needs.