How to recognize what your pet is trying to tell you

By Corry Anderson-Fennell

If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, then dogs must be from an entirely different solar system.

That’s because everything about them — from the ways in which they communicate to their very perception of the world — is completely estranged from the human species. Yet people still expect their loyal family pet to understand terse orders like “stop eating my shoes” and “don’t growl at the vet.”

“Dogs communicate mostly by body language, through movement of their tails, ears, eyes, mouth and muzzle as well as their entire body,” says University of B.C. psychology professor Dr. Stanley Coren.

Coren has dedicated much of his career to translating the language of dogs, which he calls “Doglish,” for their frustrated, upright, two-legged guardians. He’s even authored several books on the language of dogs, including How to Speak Dog and Understanding Your Dog for Dummies, which he co-wrote with dog trainer Sarah Hodgson.

In all his experience, nothing disturbs him more than the belief that a wagging tail indicates a friendly dog. “It drives me crazy,” he groans.

A wagging tail has numerous meanings, depending on the height of the tail and the speed of the wag, says Coren. A slow-wagging tail held high usually means the dog does not want to be approached. “When a parent sees a dog like this, they’re always tempted to send their child over to see the ‘friendly’ dog, and the dog snaps. To the people, this was seemingly without provocation, but in fact, that dog was telling people he wanted to be left alone and they didn’t listen.”

Coren notes that dogs with docked tails or ears have a compromised ability to communicate, and are often misunderstood by people and other dogs. This can lead to aggression and fighting.

In 2008, more than 3,600 dogs and puppies were surrendered to British Columbia SPCA shelters by their guardians, several hundred of whom reported their pets’ behaviour as the reason for giving them up.

Being able to communicate with their pets would have helped these people manage and modify behaviours, and perhaps keep their pets.

Doglish 101

Coren offers some Doglish-to-English translations for these common behaviours, from his book How to Speak Dog:

Tail wagging: Slow and high indicates a desire to be left alone; moderately low with big sweeps that seem to vibrate the entire body indicates a submissive, trusting, happy dog; low and stiff indicates a fearful or anxious dog.

Ear position: Down and loose indicates a relaxed dog; up and forward indicates dominance or mild aggression; back against the head indicates fear.

Barking: Rapid with mid-range pitch says, “Call the pack! Someone is here”; single deliberate bark says, “Come here!’; a rising bark says, “This is fun!”

Direct, eye-to-eye stare: Often a threat, sign of dominance.

Avoiding eye contact: “You’re the boss and I don’t want any trouble.”

Yawning and licking the lips: Calming signals from an anxious or fearful dog.

Eye blinking: A sign of submission.

Face licking: Also a sign of submission or, done to a guardian who feeds him, “I’m hungry.”

Muzzle nudge: “You’re my leader. Acknowledge me.”

Roll over: “I accept your authority.”

Hackles up: “Fight or back off.”

Bow with front legs extended and rear up: “Let’s play!”