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What Is Your Pet Trying To Tell You?

Part One - Your Dog

by Ellen Lovinger Eller

You settle into your favorite chair to watch TV, but your dog blocks the screen. Eyes fixed on your face, body wriggling, he tells you he wants something without "saying" a word. How do you know what it is?

People who live with dogs enjoy daily opportunities for "cross-cultural" communication, far beyond getting Rover to "Come" on command. Pets not only learn bits of human language, they also adapt their natural interpersonal skills to us—heeding our eye movements, body position, odors and voice tone. By paying attention to those factors, we humans can become fairly fluent in our pets’ language.

Doggie Dialogue

Apart from the differences in pitch between the voices of, say, mastiffs and toy poodles, different barks convey different meanings. Dogs bark to get attention, to express fear, warn of danger and invite play; they also bark out of distress, anxiety, confusion or loneliness.

Animal behaviorist Alexandra Horowitz says in her book "Inside of a Dog" that scientists have identified three distinct types of barks: "Stranger barks," heard when an unfamiliar person walks by your home, for example, are low pitched and steady. Intended as warnings or to denote a threat, they sound harsh and aggressive. "Isolation barks," sometimes described as "fearful," switch from high to low, loud to soft, with quiet intervals in between as the lonely dog expresses his feelings. "Play barks" tend to be high frequency and they happen one right after the other, aimed directly at possible playmates, canine or human.

As a rule of thumb, because low-pitched sounds seem to come from BIG animals, and dogs respect that, people who want to "command" obedience should keep their voices deep. Conversely, since harmless small creatures make high-frequency sounds, people who use "baby talk" are letting the dog know he has nothing to fear. Within those parameters, however, there are many variations.

A low, rumbling growl is a warning, particularly if it gets louder and is accompanied by a snarl showing a full set of teeth. Clearly the dog is disturbed (or afraid). Yet there’s a difference between that growl and the one you might hear during a tug of war, which signifies nothing more than the "seriousness" of the game.

Dogs may howl when they’re alone to say they want company, or in a group as a rallying cry, either when chasing another critter or simply in celebration of their togetherness. Howling, Horowitz says, often has "a contagious component," leading others to take up the call—which may be why some dogs howl when people sing or play music.

Dogs also whine and whimper if they’re in pain or distress…moan with pleasure if rubbed in a favorite spot…click their teeth when wary…and "snuffle" loudly when seeking or requesting something to eat.

A mindful dog owner learns to distinguish between the many sounds that make up the canine vocabulary. But owners also have to be aware of the other ways dogs communicate.

Body Language

Next time you see a painting of dogs playing cards, consider this: They may not have "poker faces," but dogs know how to bluff. If you’ve ever been rushed by a "ferociously" barking Chihuahua, you’ve seen the bluff in action. It isn’t size that makes an impression; it’s attitude.

When dogs feel the need to defend themselves, they try to appear bigger than they are. Confronted by a possible rival, a dog shifts his weight forward and raises his hackles—the hair on his neck and back—to increase his bulk. He’ll stiffen his legs to make them look longer, hold his head up, stare at his opponent and lift his tail, waving it as if to say, "I’m ready. Show me what you’ve got."

A dominant dog stands tall and stares. Sometimes he’ll place his head or forelegs on another dog’s neck or shoulders. A "lower-ranking" dog will show submission by crouching down, exposing his throat and belly, licking the top dog’s face and, possibly, urinating.

When a dog is calm, his body, ears, face and tail will be relaxed. In contrast, a dog on the alert will stand stiff, leaning forward with tail erect, eyes wide, ears up and forward.

A frightened dog crouches down with his ears back and flat against his head, lips curled and tail between his legs or bristling with short, quick wags. If approached, he may snap nervously, looking aggressive. But a dog that’s truly aggressive makes himself look large and moves slowly, deliberately and stiffly. He’ll hold his tail rigid, raise his hackles, pull his lips back to expose his teeth, and probably growl deeply or snarl.

Of course, a show of teeth isn’t necessarily a warning. Dogs can and do smile to show their pleasure. Their ears will be up and forward, their eyes aglow—sure signs that they’re happy to see you, ready to play and/or generally feeling glad. You’ll recognize many of these behaviors when he welcomes you home or greets a friend—adding in some determined sniffing of private parts. In his excitement, your dog will also "bow," dance on his forepaws, push against you (or other dogs) and run around barking exuberantly. He may even seem to be laughing, inviting you to join the fun.

Other Moving Parts

But tail wagging, generally considered a happy sign, doesn’t always signify happiness. Faced with another dog that’s potentially hostile, for instance, your pet may hold his tail up high and move it back and forth, not in friendship but in an attempt to look tough.

Recently, European scientists who conducted a study of 30 dogs observed that tails wagged vigorously to the right when the dogs saw their owners and sharply to the left when they encountered a more dominant dog. Based on their research, the scientists theorized that muscles on the right side of the tail reflect positive emotions while those on the left express more negative feelings. You may not see a difference in your own dog, but just be aware that a strange dog wagging his tail may not be asking for a pat on the head.

Eye contact is another key factor in communication. Confident dogs look right at you, as if telepathically willing you to go for a walk or play. When you initiate the eye contact, you’re letting the dog know that you’re the boss, but if you get into a staring contest with a dog who thinks he’s in charge, he may consider it a challenge. If you look away first, he’ll take it as confirmation of his dominance. So when you’re getting to know a dog, encourage him to maintain eye contact for several seconds and praise him for it, making it a pleasant experience—and not a contest.

If you’re unsure why your pet’s behavior has changed, or if you’re having difficulty interpreting his actions, or if you’re just puzzled by his hostility to the new dog down the street, it may be time for professional help. Consult an animal communicator or behavioral specialist, or even your veterinarian to make sure there’s nothing physically wrong.

One thing is certain. By learning to understand your dog’s language and paying heed to what he’s trying to say, you will assure that your relationship is mutually rewarding.

Ellen Eller is a freelance writer and editor residing with her husband, Mike, in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts. She is a regular contributor to local newspapers in addition to Wisdom magazine.

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