Is Canine Body Language A Foreign Language? I Think So…

I’ve been finding myself discussing the idea of understanding the context in which our dogs are communicating with us  during my client consults. Context is everything. Let me rewind a bit to a time when I was studying Spanish in Costa Rica. I took Spanish in high school and college, but living in Costa Rica for several weeks where Spanish is the language spoken, it was a whole new level of learning. I lived with a Tica family who lived in Monteverde. Monteverde is beautiful and so are the people who live there. I attended classes Monday through Friday and traveled over the weekends with the school. The immersion into the culture and particularly the language was amazing. For me, and maybe for some of you, learning a language is a whole body experience. What I mean by a whole body experience is we are picking up clues from the other person’s body language, understanding the context of the conversation or story within certain situations. Dictionary.com defines the word context by “the parts of a written or spoken statement that precede or follow a specific word or passage, usually influencing its meaning or effect.” Learning a foreign language while immersed requires understanding the language in context. Many of the conversations are generated by the environment we’re in. For instance, when I was with my classmates and we were talking with our tour guide in the cloud forest and he points up to a tree and we see an animal, we hear the word for monkey and then see the monkey with our eyes and the story continues to make sense. If we were in the city and the Spanish word for monkey came up in conversation, we may not have understood the word as quickly because we were not in the same context of seeing one. 

You may be asking how does this have anything to do with dog training. Well, I’ve been thinking about how canine body language is similar to a foreign language. The crux of our barrier with our pet is communication, particularly deciphering how and what our dogs are communicating to us at any one time. Furthermore, it’s our responsibility in making it our priority in understanding what our dog is saying so we can continue seeking his best interest of keeping him safe in any capacity from moment to moment. When Eddie and I first adopted Bernie, we had a difficult time understanding what he was saying to us. The first few nights he would get up and get out of bed and sit at the foot of the bed yawning. This yawn was WAY different than other yawns. The yawn would make a high pitched whining sound. He would also lip smack pretty loudly too. The sounds would wake me up almost immediately and I would see Bernie staring at me. I would try and coax him back to sleep, but he wouldn’t budge from where he sat. I initially thought he didn’t feel well, so I would be looking for vomit. If I didn’t see any, I would think he would need water. We would walk out of the bedroom and Bernie would trail behind me. He didn’t go to his water bowl nor did he go anywhere else than 2ft away. I caught myself asking him out loud, “what are you trying to tell me” knowing he wasn’t going to all of a sudden speak words, but at 2am, I felt a bit irritated the answer didn’t come quick enough. I proceeded to walk back to bed, but this time Bernie didn’t follow me. He sat in the middle of the hallway staring at me. This is when it dawned on me, let’s try taking him out. I leashed him up and out he went. Wouldn’t you know, he had to go, bad! As we came back in and I took off the leash, he ran back to bed. In this moment, I learned some extraordinary communication modes from Bernie. Bernie doesn’t get up in the middle of the night anymore, but every so often he does lip smack and yawn with a whine and this gives me a clue into Bernie’s mind.

Context is crucial in understanding canine body language. If Bernie continued whining or whined while peeing, this would signal to me maybe there is something medically wrong with him. Bernie yawns sometimes when we are out for a run. I’ll catch him yawn and then I’ll glance over and see a bunny. This yawn is signaling to me his prey drive is kicking in and if he wasn’t on a leash, he would be off chasing Peter Rabbit :). Bringing a new dog into the home will likely cause some level of stress for the people and the dog. The dog may display the stress by yawning frequently since he doesn’t know the smells, the environment or the rules. Once the dog learns the rules of the home, you’ll probably see less yawning as long as the rules are consistent and fair. You can also check out Brightdog.com Aggression Ladder I shared on the Four Paws & You Facebook page. 

Victoria Stilwell describes canine body language within the context of behavior. She breaks down the modes of body language into displacement and appeasement signals as most dogs are looking to avoid confrontation in Understanding Canine Body Language. In taking this understanding a step further, behavior can also be understood within reading the dog’s body language. Like Bernie, dogs will use their body language in getting our attention. It’s our job in making the effort in deciphering what they are telling us. “Motivation and context is everything, and behavior in one context does not necessarily predict behavior in another” (McConnell, Patricia: Dominance Theory Mythologies). The more we understand how our dogs communicate and what they are communicating, we will learn how to speak canine body language fluently.

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