Dogs are good for us. They get us outside. They get us moving. They help us make friends. And, they make excellent companions. But, we need to communicate with them. We want them to come, sit, and stay. And, they need to communicate with us. They want to go out. They get thirsty. They need attention. We speak different languages. Yet, we communicate with each other. This cross-species communication fascinates me.
How do dogs and humans communicate? To begin, researchers of human non-verbal communication estimate that as much as 70-90 percent of communication is non-verbal (Mehrabian, 2007). While most of our focus is on words, communication is predominantly transmitted by other channels, such as voice tone and gestures. This is probably even truer with cross-species communication. According to dog trainer, Diane Bauman, training is about listening more than issuing commands. So, let’s begin by listening to our dogs.
Charles Darwin was actually the first to publish on non-verbal communication in animals in his 1872 book, The Expression of Emotions in Animals and Man. Darwin observed that more aggressive and dominant dogs made themselves seem taller and bigger than they actually were. Frightened, submissive animals made themselves smaller. Dominance is communicated with a stiff-legged, upright posture, and a straight tail. The dog’s whole body is tense and he is preparing to fight (see photo).
However, dominance stances rarely develop into fights. Generally, it is a dominance-hierarchy, positioning strategy and the smaller animal backs down. Submission is communicated by lowering the body while looking up. The tail may be found between the legs (see photo). If the dog is truly frightened, she will run away. My dog rarely displays dominance with me, but she will submit when I tell her firmly, “down.”
Dogs also communicate with their tails. A wide, wagging tail communicates happiness or excitement. A straight, tense tail communicates alertness or aggression. And a tail between their legs indicates submission. Watch the dog’s tail because The Tail Tells The Tale.
Finally, a dog’s vocalizations communicate. Morton and Page at the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., (1992) analyzed the sounds of 56 species of birds and mammals and derived the Law of Pitch. The Law of Pitch maintains that low-pitched sounds, like a dog’s growl, indicates threats, anger, and the possibility of aggression. High-pitched sounds mean the opposite. When my dog is irritable, she will growl in a deep pitched sound. It is a warning. And, if provoked, the growl will be followed with a bite. But when she wants something, she cries or whimpers, in a much higher pitch.
Dog-human communication is infinitely more complex than these basic cues: posture, tail movement, and vocalizations. There are more cues. The cues work in combination and context. They also vary by individual dog and breed. If you are interested in this topic, I urge you to pick up a copy of Stanley Coren’s fascinating book, How to Speak Dog.
Mehrabian, A. Nonverbal Communication. United Kingdom: Routledge. 2007.
Morton, E.S. & Page, Animal Talk. New York: Random House, 1992.