If you were going to have someone from another country, say China, move in with you and stay for up to 15-20 years, wouldn’t it make sense to learn a little or maybe even a lot of Chinese over that period of time? Even though the Chinese language may seem different, complicated, and intimidating, you’d at least give it a shot, wouldn’t you? It certainly would make the living arrangements with this person go a lot more smoothly. Well, if you think of it, that’s pretty much the same situation you encounter when living with a dog. It’s been studied and shown in the last few years that dogs have their own system of communication. The popular television series on NGC, the “Dog Whisperer with Cesar Milan”, is certainly an indication of this. One of the things that he consistently points out on the show is how we humans try to communicate with dogs in our language, not theirs, and how this doesn’t work.
Turid Rugaas is a Norwegian dog trainer who has written a book titled: “On Talking Terms With Dogs.” She will be stopping by Petropolis in St. Louis in September to talk about animal communication. In her book, she talks about how humans can learn to read the signals that their dogs are putting out and improve their interactions with their canine companions. Some times their owners can affect how the dogs communicate. Take growling for example; in the wild dogs growl as a warning to other animals, as in “Back off sucker or I’ll bite you.” But when living with humans, that growling may simply mean that you have invaded the dog’s private space, or it may even growl because it has learned that a growl will get a certain response from you.
One of the things that Turid explores in her book and also in the video: “Calming Signals: What Your Dog Tells You,” is how dogs use calming signals in the wild to help the pack hunt more effectively and stay at peace with one another. Conflicts can be dangerous since they may result in injuries and weaken the pack. In the wild, this may determine whether the animals survive or not.
Though they don’t have an actual vocal language, dogs use a wide variety of sensory input to communicate: visual, olfactory, and auditory. They are masters at detecting body language such as a quick movement of our hands or legs, a subtle change in our behavior, or even the expression in our eyes. It has been shown that horses can even detect changes in the size of the pupils in our eyes!
Turid gives an example of how miscommunication between man and dog works: say you’ve learned somewhere that you have to be the dominate pack leader, so you call Spot in a loud, dominant voice, so he knows who is the boss. Spot recognizes the aggressiveness in your voice and makes the determination that since there is nothing around to warrant such aggression, you are exceeding the instinctual boundaries. He then gives you a calming signal like yawning, licking his nose, or turning away, to tell you to stop being so aggressive. You misinterpret this signal to mean that Spot is being inattentive, disobedient, or lazy. You raise your voice even further and yell at spot who may growl because he thinks that you are being threatening, and the whole thing spirals out of control.
Dogs have some thirty calming signals in all such as “smiling, licking, tail wagging, and turning his back to you. Making the face round and smooth with the ears pulled back means your dog may be afraid and trying to look like a puppy. After all no one harms a puppy, do they?
So it looks like it might just be a good idea to learn to speak a little dog. It will certainly be easier for you to learn dog than for the dog to learn English. Maybe we could teach dogs to ask humans, (in dog talk), “Do you speak canine?”