When Dogs Talks, 5 Easy Ways to Listen

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At my dog school, we have a motto: dogs are members of the family, not just part of the pack.

Every dog -- regardless of breed or disposition -- wants to understand, communicate and be a part of your action. But like pre-verbal children, dogs lack the words to express their desires. Confused by or unaware of what you want from them, dogs will use their own language of postures and body cues to get their point across. You're speaking English, they're speaking Doglish; you're listening, they're watching. Confusion often sets in on both ends of the leash.

In my last column, 7 Reasons it's OK to Love Your Dog like a Baby, we made the happy discovery that there is a growing majority of dog lovers who think of their dog as family and themselves as loving parents rather than hard-core trainers. Links from my last blog show how dogs depend on loving attachments, follow social cues like pointing and staring, and experience empathy for those they love - just like human babies.

So here's your furry, four-legged baby, trying to navigate the world of humans, when he hits the communication barrier. Trying to interpret with posture, he communicates the only way he knows how -- by leaning forward or holding back, by adjusting his tail to flag his concern or excitement. If you're not watching for clues, you'll miss his message.

What your dog needs is a tour guide and coach--someone who will listen to his side of the story and translate what's being said. Sure, your dog looks like he understands you when you shout "NO," but his response--what my clients often think is a "guilty look"-- is really a fear response. It's not understanding, it's just fear. Problem behavior or poor self-control (we're talking about dogs, here...we'll get to you in a later post) is all about miscommunication--your dog does not understand what is expected of him.

Learn your dog's five key talking points, then spend some time seeing if you can listen with your eyes and translate the message behind every posture.

Lips & Mouth: Your dog will part his lips when he's relaxed -- it's the dog equivalent of a smile. When the mouth closes, he's in deep thought. Watch your dog when he sees a squirrel -- mouth open or closed? How about when he greets you? If only everyone exploded with such a happy grin when you entered a room! Does your dog tense up when the doorbell rings? "Tight-lipped" refers to more than just people.

Eyes: Sight is your dog's weakest sense. While he can detect some color, your dog's is painfully nearsighted. A new app, Dog Vision, show our world through their eyes.

Your dog uses sight to judge body cues, alert to motion, and focus on objects of interest. Follow his glance like a laser pointer, and you'll see what's got his attention. A dog won't stare at nothing.

What gets your baby's attention? See how many distractions your dog notices in a day: a dog barking somewhere in the distance, a ball lodged just out of reach, squirrels playing tag in a branch high above. Trace your dog's focus. See what they see.

Tail: The tail is the Great Flag of Emotion. Whatever its length, a loose, widely swinging tail signals joy and happiness - the kind of wag that brings the whole body along for the ride. The tail in a raised arch, expresses playful anticipation--game on!

But when your dog feels threatened, his tail will drop. A tight, twitching wag signals nervousness and concern. When he feels distrustful, it will rise above his rump. A quivering tip signals momentary concentration. When all motion stops, it's like the calm before the storm. Unless your dog is redirected, a defensive reaction follows almost instantaneously.

What lifts your dog's tail--your homecomings, a certain toy, food? Does anything cause it to drop? A scolding tone, a pot crashing? Can you think of anything that would raise it back up?

Ears: Dogs use sound to locate everything from family to food to playmates. If you want to know what's got your dog's attention, look no further.

When your dog is feeling playful his ears will point at his toy or at you. If you're at the park, watch his ears flick around as he tries to stay focused on everything around him.

Your dog's ears are as expressive as their tail and will often flow in the same direction. When frightened, both the tail and the ears will flatten against a dog's body giving him the appearance of a seal. When stressed, the tail and ears pitch forward in unison, focusing their agitation like an arrow.

Posture: Your dog's posture cues are easy to remember because they're similar to your own. Your dog will rise up when he's excited or happy, tense when agitated, puff out when defensive and shrink down when overwhelmed.

Think how you'd act in a similar situation. Dogs, like people, are most calm after exercise or when home where life is more predictable. From the head on down to the tail bone, relaxation looks the same no matter what the species.

Once you feel practiced in understanding a dog's body language, take your show on the road and to the dog park. Look at a dog's mouth to judge their mood. To grasp what's causing an emotional rise, look at the dog's ears and eyes, and they will point you to the cause. What about the tail and overall posture? See how a dog's 5 talking points work in concert.

Back home, read your dog's postures to discover what makes him happy versus what causes stress. Once you listen with your eyes, understanding your dog baby becomes a whole lot easier. In future blogs we'll learn how using gestures to teach words will help you develop compassion that flows both ways.