Do dogs talk? Yes, they do! But their language is Body Language and us as humans, are sometimes really bad at reading it. You might be saying in your head, well, what about barking? Barking can be equated to humans yelling. There are many different types of barks, from demand barking, like when they want something and you won’t give it to them. There is barking to try and let some dog or person or anything really know to get out of their zone. There is also barking that says I am really scared right now and I don’t want to bite but I am getting ready to if the thing that scares me doesn’t back up or go away.
I am going to focus on body language that dogs use to talk with us. Most dog bites don’t happen out of anywhere. You hear people say, “The dog didn’t give any warning” or “We were having a good time and then he bit.” In more cases than not, the dog was giving signals that it was uncomfortable, but we as humans didn’t read what the dog’s body language was trying to tell us.
When a dog bites, 99% of the time, it’s because the dog is afraid or uncomfortable with the situation and everything they have tried to tell us through body language isn’t working. They don’t know what else to do to make it stop except bite.
Take a look at this graphic. It’s called the Ladder of Aggression. It shows you many of the common ways dogs show us their discomfort before they bite. A dog biting is the last resort when everything else has failed and it really needs whatever is bothering it to stop.
This graph illustrates when a dog does certain behaviors, how stressful the dog is generally. This graph isn’t meant to show how it happens all the time. When a dog bites, there are a lot of variables, like how much the stress or threat is posing on the dog, which could escalate the dog to a bite faster than other times. Some dogs may have a high threshold and it would take a lot for them to bite. Unfortunately, some people train out or reprimand the growl or snaps, which doesn’t give the dog those options before biting. So when that happens, the dog just goes for a bite because it doesn’t have anything else to try and keep the stressor or threat away.
Dogs can also let us know how comfortable they are by their eyes. If you didn’t know, dogs are not comfortable being hugged. It is unnatural for dogs to hug each other, in reality, it’s seen more like an aggressive gesture, unlike for humans where we hug all the time. Some dogs tolerate it more than others. Dogs can let us know with their eyes if they are stressed or uncomfortable, by doing something called whale-eye. It’s when you see the whites of their eyes more than you usually would. If you are seeing the whites more than usual, then your dog is really stressed and uncomfortable and you need to stop whatever is causing it.
We all know that “guilty” look dogs have when we think they did something wrong and we think they know what that is. In reality, dogs have a short attention span. For example, your dog pees on the floor while you are out for a few hours. If you don’t catch your dog peeing at that moment, by the time you come home 2 hours later, your dog has already moved on from peeing on the floor. But you say, he looks guilty?
What is really happening is that your dog is reading your body language of being angry and feeling your energy. Remember, dogs are really good at reading body language. What happens when you see pee on the floor? Your body tenses up, your tone of voice may change, your facial expressions change.
When your dog sees this, it starts doing something called an appeasement behavior, of which there are many, like lifting a paw or rolling over on it’s back. When your dog sees you are mad, it gives that look we all know to try and get you to not be mad. Unless you catch your dog in the act, your dog has no idea why you are mad at it, it just knows you are mad and wants to do what it can to get you to not be mad anymore.
Another way a dog can talk to you is through its tail. Not all waggy tails are the same, just like not all barks are the same. A comfortable tail wag would be horizontal to its body and relaxed/loose back and forth. If a dog’s tail is sticking up past the 45-degree line, then that is considered a more aroused dog. It’s no longer considered a relaxed dog, maybe it’s excited to play with another dog, or it is barking at a dog through a fence for example. The tail usually is moving faster and is stiff. If a dog is scared or really unsure of a situation, then it’s tail will likely be between its legs, which I think most people understand.
I really could go on and on about dog body language and what they tell us. There are many books written about it and I know I left some things out, but I wanted to give more of an overview. I am more than happy to discuss in more detail about dog body language, you can reach out if you have more questions.
Once you start to see how your dog talks to you, you will have a better understanding of what your dog is feeling and can help it navigate the world in a less stressful way.