Unfortunately most of us don’t possess the powers of communication that Dr. Doolittle had when he was able to talk to the animals. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make ourselves understood to dogs or vice versa. Particularly during puppy training, I often find myself having to remind people that dogs don’t actually speak English. The act of simply repeating a word (command) over and over to a dog is not going to achieve the result you desire. So how do dogs understand us? How do they communicate with us (or other non-canines) and between themselves?
Dogs learn the words we say to them by associating the sound we make with an action. If we then praise the dog for responding correctly, it will reinforce in the dog’s mind that the noise being made by the human is connected with the action. The beauty of this is that people can speak ANY language to a dog because, in the mind of the dog, it is just another sound. The same logic applies when people give signals to dogs: the hand gesture made is associated with an action. Once learnt, both hand gestures and words can be used to communicate to a dog what is required.
Dogs are very proficient at reading our body language, so, because we are creatures of habit, they begin to anticipate our actions after a while. It is because of dogs’ uncanny ability to “read” us that they can understand what we are doing and how it affects them.
In the same way that humans communicate to each other through body language as well as verbal communication, so dogs are able to communicate with their own species as well as with humans. With verbal communication, dogs use a variety of tones and pitch when sending messages. If you take the time to listen to your dog you will appreciate the huge variety of verbal cues, whether it’s the length of the bark, the intensity of the bark, the sound of the whine or the growling which is being uttered. With non-verbal communication, dogs have a great range of body language cues, even with the more limited facial muscles that humans have. Dogs cannot only communicate through use of the tail, mouth, back and ears, they will combine these non-verbal cues to suit the occasion. The trick for humans is to be able to interpret a multiplicity of cues given off simultaneously rather than being able to simply spot one cue. An example would be a wagging tail when one dog meets another. Without knowing the importance of observing ALL the cues being given, a person may conclude that a wagging tail means a dog is pleased to see the other dog. This MAY be correct but if the tail is stiff, not relaxed, the teeth are showing and the hackles are raised, then interpreting this as a friendly meeting might turn into a dog fight!
Each dog is different in the way it interacts with humans so take the time to really get to know your dog and that will result in less communication boo-boos.