Dogs and their human handlers form strong bonds, and dogs have evolved side by side with humans to the point that their own natural behaviours have changed and adapted over time to enable us to live together harmoniously. Whilst many of us have problems communicating effectively with dogs or understanding some of their odder behaviours, we actually have a much better handle on things than dogs do, and have better skills and resources to interpret and translate canine behaviour.
Dogs do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to communicating with us in a way that we can understand, moderating their communications to meet the needs of us humans. Dogs communicate with other dogs slightly differently, as they both speak the same language!
However, even given the effort that dogs put in to trying to speak our language and bridge the divide between how we communicate and how dogs do, the message can still get lost in translation.
There are a huge number of different canine communication tools that dogs have at their disposal, and these encompass all of their senses when it comes to certain types of communications. The ways in which dogs signal certain feelings or intentions and how we interpret them can be highly variable, and there are a number of different ways in which dogs communicate that are often misinterpreted by their human handlers.
This means that the reply or response that we provide as feedback to our dogs might be inappropriate for the situation or demonstrate a misunderstanding of the dog’s mood or intentions, and feedback of this type can be confusing for a dog, who cannot work out why their behaviour or approach generated a certain response from you.
In this article we will help you to get to know your dog better and communicate with them more effectively by outlining five common canine communication signals that humans often misinterpret. Read on to learn more.
Eye contact and how we use it to communicate is something that is very different between humans than it is between dogs. In fact, interpreting the meaning of eye contact (or avoidance of eye contact) is one of the most commonly misunderstood forms of canine communication, and this can be very confusing for your dog.
For humans, making eye contact is not only considered to be polite, it is expected – and avoiding eye contact makes us feel instinctively that someone is lying, being evasive, or otherwise triggering feelings of uncertainty or confusion. When it comes to dogs, making direct eye contact is not only the height of bad manners, but also a potential signal of aggression.
Dogs don’t stare directly at each other in a friendly manner, and will generally avoid direct engagement with eye contact with people too – particularly if being told off. This is not your dog displaying a guilty conscience or exposing a falsehood, but rather a respectful gesture to let you know that they accept you as the boss or alpha.
A reasonably large number of dogs will drop down and offer up their belly for a rub if you pet them, and sometimes even dogs you’re meeting for the very first time will do this too. Whilst dogs do often very much enjoy having their belly rubbed, there is more going on here than meets the eye.
Exposing the vulnerable belly and throat is a submissive signal that dogs use with both each other and people too, and it is a way of letting you know once more that they accept your higher position in the pack structure and don’t intend to challenge you.
Dogs that commonly show their belly may tend to be submissive or at least, a little shy with other dogs and people, so bear this in mind and ensure that you reassure the dog and help them to gain confidence with you – as well as rubbing their belly.
Some dogs, even very large ones, like to sit leaning on their favourite person, and this can provide a feeling of closeness, reassurance and companionship that both dog and human benefit from.
Dogs love physical contact and to be close to the people that they love – that’s why they like to cuddle up with us, and with other dogs that they like too. However, if your dog likes to sit or stand whilst leaning their weight against you, this may not be all that is going on.
Making physical contact of this type can signal that your dog is asserting their ownership over you, or indicating that you are their person. This can serve as a cue to other dogs (or in your dog’s mind, people too) that you’re taken and theirs. Put simply, it is a way of reminding both you and others that your dog is the number one in terms of whose relationship is your main one!
Many dogs lick people, particularly their favourite people, and this is a sign of affection. However, if your dog likes to lick they might also be enjoying the taste of the salt on your skin, trying to get your attention, or even asking for food!
This is particularly true if your dog tries to lick your face, as pups will often lick their dam’s muzzles to get a taste of what they have eaten or to request a snack. This behaviour developed in the first place because wild dogs would have to hunt and scavenge for food for their litters, which they would then carry back to their pups in their mouth.
If your dog licks their lips, they might just be thinking about food, tasting a morsel of their last meal, or swiping scent particles off their nose to get a better feel for them! However, a dog that is licking their lips a lot in a certain situation might be feeling anxious or daunted, and this is an appeasing signal that dogs often use with each other to request that the other party calm down or back off, and to signal that the dog making the gesture isn’t looking for a fight.
You might see your dog licking their lips whilst avoiding eye contact if they are told off or otherwise feel unsettled or as if they are in trouble, and this has nothing to do with food – think of it more like the gesture of a human swallowing a lump in their throat under stress, or loosening their tie when put on the spot!