In our Community Therapy Dogs program we have dogs that have learned commands in English and in French, depending on the nationality of their owner. This is not to suggest that dogs understand either English or French but merely that they have connected a particular sound to a particular behaviour whatever language the dog’s owner is speaking.
This got me thinking: could a dog raised in Canada communicate effectively with a dog from any other country? I wrote an article a number of months ago about a dog’s bark and how the pitch, the volume and the repetition of the bark all mean different things in the canine world. But would, say, a deep throated bark have the same meaning to all dogs?
According to Stanley Coren, professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia and author of many books on dog communication, including “How Dogs Think” and “How to Speak Dog”, “all dogs share a universal barking language, though different breeds seem to have different dialects. The vocal sounds, though limited in the “words” which are barks, growls, whines, yips, yelps, whimpers and howls, are quite varied in the pitch, repetition and duration and these “inflections” form meaning. Generally, lower-pitched sounds are warnings and higher-pitched sounds are friendly.”
It is key in our understanding of how dogs communicate amongst themselves to appreciate that verbal communication is not the primary method of canine communication. A dog’s primary communication is first through scent, then body language, and then his vocal sounds such as barking, growling and whining. Any dog, upon meeting a “foreign” dog, would be able to know through body language what each other’s social status is, through sniffs their age and sex, what they ate, their general health, where they’ve been, and availability to mate. Then, should it be necessary, through barks or growls, they can also determine how friendly or aggressive the other dog is and how they should proceed with the relationship.
Dogs living with humans quickly figured out that communicating to us through scent is useless — we’ll never appreciate the detailed messages embedded in urine on a fencepost! So our dogs speak to us through body language, because we understand it fairly well, and through barking, because it definitely gets our attention.
And let’s not forget that dogs will communicate with other dogs and humans using a combination of body language, scent and barking, rather than simply using one method of communication. As well, the body language used by dogs can sometimes be very subtle so us humans need to be on our “A” game to fully comprehend the message being sent. Being aware of eye, ear, tail and body movement and positioning and the various meanings is very important for understanding your dog.
So to answer the initial question whether dogs are capable of communicating with dogs from other countries, the answer would be “yes “. Dogs have cut through cultural barriers, language issues and an array of artificial nuances that have prevented humans from effectively communicating with each other over the years and have established benchmarks for communication to be admired.