Understanding the Language of Dogs
Being in the fortunate position to travel while I work and study has brought me in contact with a whole host of dogs and their varying cultures. From the street dogs of Vietnam to the pampered pooches in Colombia. Although their communities differ, the language of dogs does not. Dogs communication and body language remains the same across all breeds and geographical locations.
Dogs have evolved to communicate with humans in a different way to how they communicate with each other. Their body language and vocalisation is extremely expressive when you really look at it. Dogs are the experts when it comes to communication, without actually “talking”.
I have volunteered in animal shelters, been a dog walker in different cities and sat in many parks with my greyhound. I enjoy observing dogs as they interact with each other and with humans. There are a variety of signals that are consistent across all breeds and throughout the world. Understanding them helps us to know how a dog is feeling and what they are thinking.
I am currently living in Lisbon, which is a built up hilly city. We have an apartment close to a park and every morning I walk my greyhound there for a couple of hours. Tipps has a great time walking and sniffing out the latest goings on.
Dog’s urine provides so much information that I relate a morning walk for a dog, to a human reading the morning papers.
Being an ex-racing greyhound, Tipps’ social skills are limited. They have certainly improved over the time we have had him but he is still socially awkward. Greyhounds are trained from a young age and really only socialise with their litter mates or kennel mates.
They have little interaction with other dogs. With the exception of tracks dates, there is no opportunity to learn from mingling, interacting and observing at parks or with friends & family dogs.
As his owner, I am aware of this. I learnt his tell-tail signs and what his body language is telling me. I understand when he is comfortable or agitated and can act accordingly. In the most part, I see this awareness with other dog owners in the park we visit. They know how their dog will behave and act accordingly. This is good owner behaviour.
All owners have a responsibility to one another and to the animals around them, but you get the exceptions. Understanding the language of dogs is not complicated once you know the key points.
Being a dog owner means you belong to a club. A club where all other dog owners are members. As pet dogs interact so do the owners. I have met and talked with many of the regulars to the park and have become accustomed to their dogs and how Tipps will react to them. They also acknowledge how our dogs interact and react similarly. It is a two-way thing.
Depending on who we meet, I see different reactions from Tipps. A wagging tail and keen interest when he is keen to make friends. A straight tail and heckles when he is edgy and concerned. Zig zagging his head and slowly creeping forward while looking back at me when he is curious and unsure. Sometimes he just ignores them. Sometimes he has had to snarl and growl to warn them off. It is all common dog behaviours. Each reaction in him, causes a reaction in me too in; when to step in or leave him be.
Tipps is undoubtedly more comfortable with people. When meeting people, his tail wags furiously. His head is held up, nose pointing towards the person whom he wishes to greet. He looks directly at their eyes, ear relaxed close to the head and all he wants is attention.
As well as watching the dogs interact, I note how the owners manage their dogs too. Thankfully, Tipps is a people watcher just like me. Or should that be dog watcher in his case. We both love getting settled in a cosy spot after out walk and watching all the comings and goings of the park.
Leah, the Greyhound
One of our favourites, and now a firm friend, is the only other greyhound we have seen in Lisbon. Leah is a young, bouncy, white and grey bundle of joy. Tipps is at ease as soon as he sees her. Like with all greyhound meetings Tipps visibly relaxes. His body loosens, his tails wags and I feel that there is an instant assumption (from him) that there is no threat.
Although, he can eventually tire of her up her zooming up to him and jumping. He is grumpier in his old age but not hostile. He will bare his teeth or give off a low growl to warn her to calm it down a little.
Leah is wonderfully friendly and wants to play, play, play. Her owner sees when this becomes too much and is quick to pull her away and leash her if she is too excited to wonder on. She seems happy to play with all the dogs. However, she too has found the ones to avoid. It can be almost comical when she zooms towards one to play, realises who she is approaching and then needs to back up. She becomes all limbs and bambi-like on those long legs.
Yappy, the Daschund
Yappy is not the real name of the daschund but we call her this because she is a barker. As soon as she sees another dog in the park she will start barking. It does not matter whether the little chocolate brown sausage dog knows them or not.
The bark is not aggressive. She does not snarl or bare her teeth. Her eyes can sometimes convey an uncertainty but they dart about. It is not fear. She soon puts another dog in their place with a little snip if she is not happy with their behaviour.
Yappy walks with confidence, with her head high as he totters around. She will head straight towards the trigger to her barking or at the least stand her ground when they come to her. I put her bark down to some kind of territory marking. I get the impression she thinks of the park as her park.
She barks to project her small frame into something bigger. She is queen bee around these parts. Nearly every time she stops once she and Tipps have had a sniff of each other, both tails wagging. Occasionally, when we pass back by she could start again but then it is like she realises she has already approved Tipps and a huruff comes out instead.
The Two Pugs
More recently two female pugs have been in the park. They are playful and curious of everything. They have become great friends with the numerous French bulldogs that are hugely popular in Lisbon. There is an epidemic of Frenchies here.
I thoroughly enjoy watching these two tussle and bustle with the other dogs. For small doggies, they hold their own in the play bouts. They have an advantage though, double the trouble. These two circle, jump and bounce on their playmates and they move quickly.
I am yet to see anything but fun and frolics in their interactions with other dogs but this is because they only engage with those they know want to play.
When new dogs approach, there is a tense moment of stand-off. Bodies taunt, chests out and intent stares. In a matter of seconds though, heads twist to the side and small steps are made towards each other with mutual sniffing. Then, an explosion of energy erupts and its playtime.
When it comes to the dogs they are not so sure about they move much slower. Tipps is no longer running around and playful. He prefers to lay on his blanket and relax. The two pugs inch slowly towards him, sniffing the air, curious and unsure. They look between each other and back to their owner.
When Tipps does not respond to their advances, small almost inaudible whines escape them as they look at me. It feels like they are asking why he is not playing? Tipps eventually heaves himself up and swings his head in their direction, and they scatter.
I am sure one day they will stick around when Tipps sits up and have a proper meeting. For now, they seem happy enough with just waking the grumpy old dog from his slumber. Like a game of knock down ginger.
Dogs seems to have a natural ability to fit into our world. They can read our cues, obey our commands and have an uncanny understanding of our language. However, we should remember that they are not humans and have their very own dog world too. Their communication with us is hugely different to their communication with each other.
For instance, smiling (showing us a full set of teeth) is really a trait that has evolved for humans. If a dog was to bare all of their teeth to another dog it would be a sign of aggression.
Not all dogs will like each other. Not all dogs will want to play with each other. They express their emotions clearly through a number of unspoken signals. Understanding those signals is key to supporting a dog’s social skills and reducing conflict. Read more on this.
The park has a very active life. Families come to play in the childrens area. Couples comes to relax on a blanket and watch the sun shine off the sea. Groups of friends play music and have a beer at the bar.
Generally, the dogs mingle and interact with them all harmoniously This happens best when the owners are aware of their dog’s behaviour and monitor them and others reactions to them.
Not all people like dogs and that should be respected. Not all people understand dogs either. A little knowledge on dog language goes a long way.
I strongly recommend you read "On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals" by Norwegian dog trainer and author Turid Rugaas. Her life long work with dogs and subsequent books have been a huge contribution to the field of dog behaviour and training.
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