HOW DOGS COMMUNICATE.
What follows is a brief overview of the large subject of how dogs communicate. This section is a fairly large information section that will hopefully help you understand a bit about the complex ways in which dogs express themselves and communicate with others. Sometimes this communication can be of a very subtle nature, and most people will miss it if they don't know what to look for, also some of a dogs communication skills will be beyond our own senses. The following text will help explain why your dog carries out certain behaviours, ones like: “ he/she doesn't like black dogs,” or “my dog always scrapes the ground up after urinating,” or "my female dog cocks her leg like a male to urinate, should I be worried?”
Dogs have several ways in which to communicate with others, especially where other dogs are concerned, and a well socialised, sound dog will be an expert at it. Problems arise when genetics, environment and early learning of a negative nature are affecting a dogs perception on things, and so also affecting the way in which it communicates with other dogs. A good dog person will be able to tell from that dogs body language, vocalisations and demeanour what the problem may be, and looking at other important factors like context, environment, history, genetics, owner bond and much more, be able to help. However this section is about how dogs communicate and so here the story begins.
The domestic dog communicates with others in four ways, those being Auditory (voice), Visual, Tactile (touch) and Olfactory (smells). A dog will use all four of these when out and about in the environment and so as I talk about each separately you should imagine all of these senses being used at the same time to give you a picture of just how good a dog is at communicating with others, even though most of it is not evident to many people; even some long term dog owners.
When two dogs that have not met before approach each other they will often have already decided what the outcome of the meeting will be, many times well before they actually get face to face. The outcome could be any of the following: play, ignoring one or the other, running away, strutting their stuff, being submissive, being protective, being defensive; it all depends on the previous learning of both dogs present, what is in the environment at that particular moment, the genetic drives present and being expressed in each dog, how the owners are reacting, and a few other aspects.
From a fair distance, using their body language skills, dogs will be able to work out the mood of another dog, the status of another dog, if the other dog may be a threat or not, if the other dog wants to socialise or is playful, and what the possible outcome may be. They may well have already picked up on scent marking in the area left by the other dog in urine or faeces, and from this could already know the sex, age, status, health, breeding season (if a female) and many other things.
As dogs close with each other they will be continually signalling their intentions using some or all of the following: distance from one to the other, full body position, positioning of certain body parts (in particular the head, eyes, ears, tail, gums, teeth, hair/hackles). They may urinate in full view of the other dog, the list here is long.
Two well socialised sound dogs should go through ritualised greeting behaviour, have their interaction, and be on their way. A dog will go through similar to the above when meeting a strange person though most will not be aware of the processes taking place within the dog, obviously breed type, genetics, environment and early learning of any dog where people are concerned has great effect on the dogs actions but I will endeavour to give you a good idea about what generally happens communication wise in the following text.
So, lets have a look at Olfactory communication first, arguably the most important of the dogs repertoire, and the one that is mostly beyond our own senses.
Olfactory Communication, (smells):-
Some facts first:-
A dogs nose can have a Olfactory epithelium (internal nose area) of between 20-200 sq cm depending on breed, we as humans have 2-4 sq cm.
They can have up to 300 Mio (million) scent receptor cells, we have 5 Mio.
Dogs noses are 1-100 Mio more sensitive to Butyric acid (in sweat), so good for tracking, it is estimated that the sweat left in a shoe print is 1 Mio more than threshold.
The area of a dogs brain used to analyse smells is 40 times larger than ours.
So with a nose like this it is somewhat obvious that olfactory communication is very important to the dog, as important as sight is to us.
A dog has many glands spread throughout it's body and all of these can release a secretion or pheromone that will leave a message, often a long term message, to another dog that smells them and also indeed sometimes tastes them. You will most probably have seen your dog smelling and then licking something on the ground or on a raised object and sometimes they might start drooling or you might notice a change in their behaviour; suddenly becoming more alert and intense. They have just found a sign left by another dog and are reacting to the message left by the other dog. The message could be one of many and this will only be apparent to your dog as humans we do not have the capabilities to smell or know what it means.
You, may over time though, be able to tell what is happening as you learn to read your dogs different reactions to smells and the behaviour that takes place next. Like your male dog getting a lost look and then disappearing over the horizon in pursuit of a female on heat, HA HA. What is happening in the later is your dog has licked what he found to transport it to the vomeronasal organ (or jacobsons organ), an organ found in the roof of a dogs mouth. This organ contains chemo receptors and is connected to the limbic system which deals with emotions and so is important in social interactions (pheromones). A dog will lick and then salivate then become excited about what they have found and what it might mean (female in season, high status dog, friendly known dog etc).
Glands that secrete these hormones and pheramones are situated on the dogs head (side of), anal region, on the upper surface at the base of the tail called the Supracaudal or violet gland, the perineum (between the dogs legs) and on the feet (between the toes). When a dog defecates (poos) the faeces picks up some of the secretion from the anal glands on either side of the anus as it passes through, so putting a message in it for others to find. Some dogs will try to get their urine or faeces as high up as possible, one of my old dogs would select a small bush in an otherwise completely flat field and poo on this for all to see and more importantly I think to have the smell carried more easily on the breeze.
A dogs urine carries a wealth of information within it. On smelling another dogs urine that dog will be able to ascertain the sex of the other dog, if female if it is in season, how old the dog is, how healthy the dog is, the status of the other dog and most importantly how long ago they were there, and if very recently they will be on the lookout for them if they feel they need to be.
A dog may use the glands on the side of it's head to rub it's head on something (often something smelly) to leave a message or just to put his/her smell on it or over another’s. A dog may just roll in something smelly like faeces or carrion like smelly dead fish on a beach, the reasons for this behaviour are not really known for sure, some will say to put a stronger smell on themselves to make them more appealing and interesting to other dogs or to just to try and cover a strong smell in the environment with one of their own.
Some dogs after urinating and sometimes defecating might scrape the ground up with their feet, mine does it. Here the intention is three fold, one it is an obvious sign to any watching dog in the immediate vicinity that “look what I'm doing, here is my mark”, two that the scraped up ground is an additional visual sign to back up any pheromone messages left and to help attract later any passing dog and three that an additional pheromone message is left on the immediate ground by the dogs glands between the toes when scraping the ground up.
Often if two male dogs of fairly equal status are in close proximity they will strut around and continually mark on top of each others markings. A high status female will sometimes do the same and may well cock her leg to urinate.
With the female this leg lifting is quite normal and their could be a few reasons for it: The female could have come from a litter that contained a lot of males and in utero (by permeation of the amniotic membrane or through foetal blood supply) she could have been bombarded with male hormones (called androgenization) leading to the development of some male traits/behaviour patterns, giving high testosterone levels and leading to the masculine behaviour of leg lifting. She could have learnt through observational learning that this behaviour is carried out by high status males and being an assertive female followed suit. She could also have learnt that doing this affords her something extra in her doggy world, whatever it may be, (attention for instance from a laughing owner). It is not grounds to worry over.
It should be added the the same sort of hormone influences can happen with male dogs born from a litter of mostly females (called estrogenization). They can be bombarded by female hormones and although obviously still male dogs they may have some female traits/behaviours because of it; often the reason why some male dogs are shown unwanted attention from other male dogs.
I was once asked to look at a 3yr old Gsd that the owner was worried was not cocking his leg yet, and reassured them that this was in fact normal behaviour. They had a 5yr old male Gsd that was very obviously the top dog and really quite a dominant dog. As it was such a clear cut hierarchy between them the younger dog did not feel the need to (or want to) leg lift in the presence of the other dog i.e. in the garden, but I did notice the younger dog doing some crafty leg lifting when out and about and not seen by the older dog, even on occasion covering the older dogs mark after it had moved on, an early sign of possible (only possible) problems between them in the future.
So we can see that Olfactory communication is of great importance to the dog and adds greatly to how the dog perceives the world around it and what it tells them about the environment as they move through it, using their olfactory senses they get a good picture of what has happened in the immediate environment, what is happening and what may yet happen long before sight and sound comes into play. Having a good sniff tells the dog what is going on in the immediate worlds of theirs and you should readily allow it to happen, your dog will be a happier dog because of it.
We shall now have a look at Visual communication.
Some facts first:-
Dogs have a Binocular field of vision of approx 40-60 degrees which varies from breed to breed. Brachycephalic (short nosed) breeds having a better overlap in the field of vision than dolichocephalic breeds (long nosed); the shorter nose does not get in the way and so they have a wider field of vision.
Dogs see better in the dark than us as they have more rods in the retina and are also aided by the tapetum lucidum which reflects concentrated light back through the rods of the retina (why their eyes light up when a light is shone on them at night).
Dogs are particularly sensitive to seeing movement at distance, motion detection is very good, however the actual vision (details) at distance, is itself, not good.
Dogs do not have stereoscopic vision like us, where our sight overlaps we get an area that gives us a good sense of depth and distance, dogs do not; which may partly account for why sight hounds trip over small objects when flat out.
Dogs have poor resolution in their sight, they can't pick out great detail but they don't need to.
Visual communication like all the other forms of dog communication is of great importance to the dog and a label of “body language” or “signalling” is often put on it, which is correct about a large part of it, though it is also a lot more. How dogs perceive or read the signals gives them lots of information about an individual, group or other non dog (especially us). Hopefully the following will help you understand and appreciate the complexity of this form of dog communication.
From a fair distance a dog can tell the “mood” of another dog by looking at it's posture and how it is moving. At this distance it cannot make out facial features or see pilo erection (hackles up) for instance, but they can see the general posture of the dog, including how the tail is being held and the way in which it is moving: slow, fast, stiffly, loosely, sniffing, urinating, concentrating on them. Using the previous a dog will already have a good idea about the intentions of the approaching dog be that play, aggression of some form, no contact wanted etc. As the other dog closes they will start to pick out the other signals that the dog is giving out and by the time of actual meeting will probably already have a good idea what is about to take place and how they want to handle it.
Whatever happens to be in the immediate environment and the early learning of all dogs present will though have a large effect on any dogs decision making. For instance, if one is very protective of it's owner then this may have great effect, as may other things present like: balls, toys, treats, other dogs (female in season); anything really that one of the dogs sees as important, dogs are negotiating all the time. If both dogs are well socialised and experienced dogs then all should be well and they should go through a ritualised (innate and learnt) greeting behaviour.
Don’t forget that before all the above takes place your dog may already have a good idea about the approaching dog from Olfactory clues and Vocalisation (in some cases). Dogs will employ the same skills as above when looking at us, they will learn your particular body language and will know your mood too. The look of guilt when you return home is not because they ate your settee while you were gone but a response to your present body language, i.e. not very happy.
Close up dogs are looking at several things when a dog approaches them, that is,
Posture:-Including positioning of the feet, positioning of the tail and how it is moving (if at all), positioning of the head, positioning of the ears, body height (standing tall, crouching down, hugging the ground, stalking), pilo erection (hackles up). Is the dog not moving or scratching itself or some other seemingly distracting behaviour. All of the above have some specific meaning in dog communication.
Facial expression:- Including the eyes (staring, looking away, looking up, size of pupils), the position of ears (pinned forwards, pinned back, up/down), the mouth (position of gums, whether teeth exposed, mouth open/closed, shape of mouth), the forehead (is it smooth, wrinkled). Is the dog licking it's lips, yawning. All of the above here too have specific meaning in dog communication which would be too vast for me to cover in this topic alone.
Using all of the above a dog can communicate quite easily it's mood and it's intentions and any dog and indeed a good dog person will be able to interpret it's signalling. A dog can show a relaxed state, a submissive state, a dominant/aggressive state, a fearful and aggressive state at the same time, a fearful and submissive state at the same time, a playful state, a stressful state and an alert and attentive state from just it's body language.
Some modern breeds due to their coats or body types are at a disadvantage when it comes to signalling with other dogs. Some have their eyes covered by hair which does not allow other dogs to see their eyes or them to see properly the signalling of another dog, some breeds are so hairy that many of the dogs features are hard if not impossible for others to see and so for other dogs to read, seeing pilo erection (hackles up) for instance, which may lead to the hairy dog getting more attention. Some dogs have docked tails which obviously does not allow them to signal with them and other dogs will find it harder to read their intentions as this normally good indicator is not present. Some have cropped ears again not allowing proper signalling by them or reading by other dogs.
Coat colour can make reading of approaching dogs difficult too, especially an all black dog. Often people may say “my dog doesn’t like black dogs”. Now this could be that the dog was previously attacked by a black dog and so has an aversion to them but for most it is because they find it harder to read a black dog. As a black dog approaches it's features like eyes, gums, forehead, ears are lost as just one approaching black blob and so makes reading them harder, if the dog doing the reading is only a little nervous or fearful or maybe under socialised then they will react more to the black dog because they find it harder to read their intentions.
Another dog that is hard to read for many of the aforementioned things is the boxer dog, with no tail, cropped ears, large lips that cannot easily be drawn back accompanied by a usually boisterous nature they are often misread, though generally of a good nature I might add.
Visual communication comes heavily into play with submissive gestures too, some dogs and puppies will carry out very submissive behaviour when confronted by a higher status dog or sometimes just by any dog. This involves a low approach to the other dog often with the tail tucked well between the legs, rolling on to the back exposing the belly and in extreme cases submissive urination, often accompanied by vocalisation to emphasise things (whining/whimpering/barking), all this is done to tell the other dog that they are in no way any kind of a threat so please be nice to me, which is how most dogs will react. If though after pup/dog has been submissive and all seems well and they proceed to jump all over the other dog then a telling of may still come their way (hopefully only a telling of though, lol).
A direct stare is a threat to another dog and may elicit a response depending on the learning, environment and status of the dog being stared at. In this situation normally one of the dogs will look away and this is a sign that this dog has deferred to the other, if neither defers then things may escalate to serious strutting and a bit of vocals (growls), hopefully one will defer at some stage and all should be well if a little tense. If neither defers and both are of equal status then fighting may ensue, hopefully things won't get to this stage though sometimes it does. This is normal species specific behaviour especially between two intact male dogs or indeed any dogs with prior learning in place but this escalation of behaviour should not happen all the time when dogs meet so if it does for your dog then get a professional to have a look.
Eye contact is important in a dogs decision making, especially with us. A nervous or fearful dog and indeed an aggressive dog will almost certainly increase it's reaction to you if you stare them out as it is seen as a threat. A big mistake a lot of people make when approaching a strange dog is straight away to go over the top of the dogs head to stroke it on the top of the head or neck when they meet it. In doing this you are blocking out the dogs eye contact with you as your hand passes over head and if the dog (which you do not know) is in any way nervous /fearful or reactive this loss of eye contact may force a reaction from them, obviously this reaction would not come from a well socialised sound dog but not all dogs out there are as such, so if you are intending to stroke or fuss a strange dog go under the head to start with or better still hold your hand low down in a loose fist (no fingers sticking out) and let the dog come to you and sniff your hand, if they are not responsive you will know and can back off, don't forget to always ask the owner first if they are there. Extra care should be taken to explain the above to young children that might otherwise try to cuddle a strange dog, this may be seen as a threat by many dogs and some might react instinctively to it, a normal species specific reaction, and often the reason why small kids are bitten on the face.
If a dog is continually averting it's gaze as another dog approaches then that could be a displacement behaviour. The dog doing the looking away is not happy with the present situation and is trying to let the other dog know, it is doing it to try and calm the situation and is a sign the dog is anxious. Other signs of displacement behaviour could be licking the lips, yawning, scratching oneself, wet dog shaking (when a dog gets in a stressful/anxious situation it may wet dog shake to effectively shake out the stress to relieve itself) often done by a dog after an anxious confrontation (mine does it occasionally).
Having said the above paragraph I have known dogs that have carried out some of the above types of behaviours before attacking another, normally driven by fear, this is not common though; so really the individuals prior learning and genetics is key.
Some dogs when confronted by another will carry on as though that dog was not even there, it is quite funny to watch but is the way that particular dog has learnt to deal with other dogs, pretend I can't see it and it might go away. This dog is not carrying out normal social behaviour for whatever reason but is it's way of coping.
A dog may try to elicit play with visual behaviour like play bowing, dropping down on the front paws and employing an excited tone and movement, usually employed by younger dogs, occasionally this gets a response from my dog and he will engage with a short play but mostly they get the go away mad thing treatment.
Tail wagging is generally a sign of a happy dog when accompanied by other non threatening behaviour, but a small minority of dogs might wag there tails before or when being aggressive/ threatening and without getting embroiled in discussion on this they are really maladjusted in some way (learning, unsocialised, hormonal, genetic etc).
So as with the other types of canine communication Visual communication is very important. All of the above is general information, a dogs early learning and environment can have a big effect on any one dogs visual (body language/signalling) communication, indeed some dogs will give of signals that to the untrained seem like aggression but when looked at as a whole with all the other signs is in fact a way to illicit play or it could be the other way round and signs that look like play may be a prelude to aggression, this is not common though. As a behaviourist you would look at the whole picture to come to a diagnosis.
Now lets have a look at canine Auditory communication
Canine Auditory Communication:-
Some facts first:-
Canine hearing covers from 15Hz up to 65,000Hz (humans up to 20,000), dogs can hear much higher frequency sound than us.
Canine hearing is best at 4000Hz (humans 1000-2000Hz).
Dogs are much better able to localise sound than we are as they have moveable pinnae (ear flaps) and they can better judge the distance to a sound as they can compare the time of sound reaching the left and right ear separately.
Hearing in dogs with upright ears is better than floppy ears but floppy ears give protection to the ears (for example a spaniel in the brush).
Dogs can move their ears, we cannot.
Humans are capable of understanding or rather learning the type of behaviour that accompanies some of the dogs vocalisations. You can tell from the type of bark whether a dog is being social, defensive or predatory (aggressive, attacking) and with your own dog you can brake this down further like for instance when a ball has gone under something and the bark employed by them to get you to fetch it, ha ha. But to a dog Auditory communication is much more complicated and is capable of conveying many different things to another dog and indeed to us if sometimes we may not get it or mis interpret it. To other dogs and dog professionals it will often be easy to see what it is that the dog is trying to communicate especially if accompanied by the relevant body language too.
Vocalisations by dogs can be used to send a message to another at a long distance or close up can be used to reinforce messages already sent by other means (olfactory, visual). They can be used to elicit play, to communicate pleasure or contentment, to tell others of their displeasure or pain, they can draw attention to others or things, to get attention for themselves (attention seeking behaviour), to warn of approaching dogs or others, to tell others that the dog themself is nervous, fearful or anxious, they can warn you or others of imminent attack or aggression by themselves, they can be used to help give a good idea of the present mental/physical state of a dog (for instance depression, happy, aggressive, scared, anxious, alert, concentrating, excited, dominant, submissive, tired, in pain and many more).
If you have a dog that barks a lot then it is a sign of something, barking is not a diagnosis but a sign of an underlying problem be that separation anxiety, conflict, territorial behaviour or others, it could even be an inherited trait (get professional help).
Vocalisations of the dog can come in many forms those being Barks, Grunts, Howls, Growls, Whimpers/Whines and Teeth snapping. All of these forms of vocalisation can be used in various degrees of strength, length, tone, pitch and with the accompanying body language or signalling mean different things. I could not cover all the meanings of every vocalisation in this topic but hope to show you the complexity and importance of it.
Let's take a growl for instance, given different degrees of tone, length and intensity a growl can communicate a defence warning, initiate play, a threat signal, a submissive gesture, a greeting (happy), attention seeking behaviour, be associated with pain in the dog (don’t touch I am in pain). Obviously there will be associated body language/signalling that will reinforce the actual meaning of the growl but as you can see the vocal communication of the dog is a large and complicated affair.
Let's have a quick look at the howl, like the growl the physical characteristics of the howl can give it different meanings. It can used as a contact call in isolation issues (separation anxiety for instance), it can be used to attract other dogs (female in season for instance), it can be used in territorial issues (this is my garden), it can be used in play, it can be used to emphasise excitement. I would add here that the territorial issues with regard to howling are possibly suspect but that maybe what we see here is innate (genetic, born with it) behaviour and not so much howling learnt in association with territorial issues (though some may be).
Let's look at the bark, again the characteristics of the bark will convey different meanings to it. Like the howl it can be employed as a lone call (separation anxiety etc), it can be used in greeting, in play, in defence, is used often and to good effect in attention seeking behaviour, is used in varying degree of intensity/tone as a warning (preceding attack, submission or running away), it can also be used as a sign of contentment.
So as we can see from the above small look at bark's, growls and howl's (not withstanding grunts, whimpers, whines and teeth chattering) the Auditory communication of the dog is complicated and complex, and personally I think quite interesting. The body language that comes with the vocialisations will tell the outsider what exactly the dog is trying to convey and will often strongly reinforce it making it somewhat obvious of the dog's state of mind and it's intentions.
Now lets have a look at the fourth form of canine communication, tactile (touch).
Tactile Communication, (touch):-
Some facts first:-
The skin of the dog has complex receptors that can sense pain, body movement and position, temperature, touch and pressure and chemical stimulation.
Dogs have touch receptors at the base of every hair and especially sensitive are the vibrissa (whisker’s).
Touch does indeed have a calming effect on the dog, it will reduce the dogs heart rate and lower stress, you will probably have seen this effect when stroking your own dog. A word of warning, overly touching or stroking your dog to calm them in nervous situations may unwittingly reinforce the nervous behaviour (make it worse), it depends on the dog in question, some reassurance is ok though.
Deep muscle massage or long firm strokes the full length of the body are most effective in calming dogs.There is a phenomenon known as the “caress effect”, if you regularly caress your pregnant bitch it will have a calming/stress lowering effect on the bitch and this will be passed on to the pups in utero, a calmer stress free bitch has calmer puppies but if they end up calm adults will though depend on later environment and learning.
Dogs do seek out physical contact, it is in their genetic make up, this behaviour is a result of Neoteny. Neoteny is the maintenance of juvenile characteristics into adulthood, in other words adult dogs retain juvenile behaviour. This is a result of the process of domestication and many studies looking at dogs and wolves are in agreement (as am I) that adult domestic dogs have behaviour mostly akin to juvenile (4-6months) wolves not adult wolves. Some other examples of this neotonic behaviour would be playfulness and barking, both part of the dogs communicative repertoire.
So a dog will seek out physical contact for reasons like play, comfort, bond building, attention seeking, dominance issues (some dogs), appeasement/submissive behaviour, courtship/mating and others.
Generally when two strange dogs meet each other they will go through a ritualised greeting behaviour made up of innate and learnt behaviour that will usually not involve physical contact, though they will often get very close to each other, if there is physical contact it could be the result of several things like an exuberant younger dog, an exuberant older dog too, an aggressive dog, a dominant dog, a fearful dog, a dog in season, a dog that has no social skills (is unsocialised) and basically does not know what it is doing and some others.
If a dog puts it's paw on another dog, dependant on the other signs being shown it could be seen as a threat or indeed an invitation to play, in the former (threat) a high status dog may put it's paw on another dog often with some pressure as if to say I am in charge here and the result could go either way dependant on the other dogs status, learning to date and the immediate environment. In the later (play) some dogs may try to illicit play by placing a paw on the other dog and also other more boisterous moves like body slapping that some dogs may not put up with. A dog may put a paw on it's owner to get attention, to illicit play or in some instances to show (in it's own eyes) that the dog is in charge, there may well be more going on in the later scenario.
Dogs will seek out contact with their owners and families and part of this will often involve physical contact, sometimes of a demanding nature (a picture of a staffie comes to mind, ha ha). Some dogs will use physical means like leaning on, pawing, jumping on or even tugging at clothes to get attention or interaction with another. Dogs that know each other well will often engage in physical contact when playing and interacting, things that would probably not happen between dogs that do not know each other though this can sometimes quickly change after an initial first meeting if both dogs are happy with it.
I hope that all of the above has given you some insight into the ways dogs communicate with others. Dogs are a complex animal with complex forms of communication, it is in their genetic make up to seek social interaction with other dogs and other animals, particularly us, as their evolution and domestication over many thousands of years is intrinsically linked to ours. A dog will be a happier dog if it is allowed to socialise and interact with others, you will be happier too as your dog will act as you want it to when out and about. You can see from all of the above the array and complexity of the senses that a dog possesses, and they should be allowed and indeed encouraged to use them (in the right way of course).
I have seen dogs being dragged away from a spot where they are trying to pee or mark, as explained earlier this is an important part of the dogs communicative repertoire and they should be allowed to do it, if you are in a place where you feel you should not allow them to pee (Buckingham palace for instance, ha ha ), then walk them in a place where you feel they can go, a dog will think and be encouraged by other dogs marking etc to go where ever it happens to find them. A dog that is allowed to use it's communicative skills as often as possible will be a better more well socialised and happy dog for it, indeed I personally think that it is of great importance to the pet dog.
Why not take a look at my new book, a realistic novel about a wolf called Elmer, his family and their life. My hope would be that the reader would learn much about wolves and mother nature, and come to understand more about where your dog came from.