The communication systems of dogs are not simple and sometimes difficult to understand. The primary reason for this is because communication involves context. Furthermore, it is critical for a dog owner to understand that the congruence of your dog’s signals indicates “the dog is relatively certain and comfortable with the signaling decision made” 1, while in-congruent signals (such as dog who is growling while simultaneously wagging her tail) indicates “more uncertainty and less commitment to one specific signaling outcome” 1. Coupling the signals with the external factors explains why a dog’s reaction can quickly change in busy or unpredictable environments. Paying close attention to your dog’s signals, the environment currently surrounding her and the congruency of your own signals will help your dog feel more comfortable and help you clearly understand her behavior and intentions.
Social signals, whether they occur between people or animals, change with a changing context. A dog’s signals will “become more congruent when the humans involved are exhibiting behaviors that the dog understands” 1. For instance, introducing a dog to a new person who exhibits confidence (rather than fear) when greeting the animal will help the dog to emulate similar behavior if the dog feels secure in the surroundings.
This does not mean you should rush up to the new animal and quickly reach out to pet her…you must pay careful attention to her body language. While overt body language (such as tucking in her tail usually indicates fear) may be easily understood, other signals are more subtle. A dog not fully committed to the interaction may choose to stand, “which gives her the option to move more quickly than were she sitting or lying down” 1. However, a dog who is displaying curiosity, coupled with her ears cocked forward usually indicates a willingness to interact with the stranger 1. A dog who sits or lies down after greeting the new individual usually communicates her intentions toward the person and her own comfort level. Of course, the physical state of the dog must also be taken into consideration when trying to interpret this type of behavior. A dog suffering from arthritis may not move quickly or stand due to pain.
Dog signals not only provide information to the human, but can also be a sign that the dog is seeking more information from the human. A dog displaying an eagerness to interact, (e.g., a relaxed tail, mouth displaying a ‘grin’) may also display slightly raised eyebrows if she is receiving mixed signals from a human. The raised eyebrows “indicate that the dog is waiting for more information before committing to a decision” 1. For example, a person standing too far away to optimally signal a dog and leaning over the animal communicates uncertainty (on part of the human) to the dog. An uncertain person is likely to see the dog exhibiting similar behavior and she may become uncomfortable if the object of her worry comes within one dog-length of her. “It takes deliberation to stand up straight, a behavior that commits you to the interaction”1. A human who stands directly in front of the dog (about one dog-sitting length away) and signals commands very calmly, quietly, and clearly will help the dog to understand your intentions and eliminate confusion. Moreover, when using a lead, it is also important to be aware of your signals. “Unless the lead is absolutely limp, every movement, every tensing of the hand, every cringe of the shoulder is immediately telegraphed to the dog” 1.
By carefully watching your dog’s signals, you can develop a real appreciation for how well your dog is actually communicating with you. By carefully watching your signals, you can help avoid the frustration experienced when miscommunication occurs between you and your beloved companion.
Karen L Overall. (2004, May). Behavior signals interpreted with body postures. DVM, 35(5), 2S,3S,6S,7S.
Disclosure Note: This article only serves as a guide and is based on research from various sources, both online and in print, including article(s) written by DVMs, dog trainers, groomers, and/or other qualified experts. Please check with your DVM for any questions regarding the information provided in this article. Thank you.