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How to Speak Dog

Developing an understanding of canine communication
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What to do when approaching a fearful dog:
• Stand sideways and avoid eye contact.
• Lick your lips and yawn.
• Be patient, and if you have a treat, toss it towards them.

The Savvy Trainer

If you could talk to your dog, what would you ask him? Why does he bark at every dog that passes by? Is he scared or does he want to play? What are his favorite activities? I can’t even begin to list the many questions I’d want to ask my dog!  

Most dog communication is through body language and gestures. Norwegian dog trainer Turid Rugaas identified more than 30 gestures dogs make, both with other dogs and with humans. She named these gestures 'calming signals.' Ruggas asserted that dogs deliberately make these gestures to try and calm another being. Since her findings were published, many researchers have studied these gestures and now believe they are hard-wired behaviors used for the purpose of self-preservation. These researchers have broken the gestures down by the purpose they seem to serve.  

The first category of behaviors are those used to appease others and are used when a dog is communicating that they see you, or another dog, as their leader. Appeasement behaviors include: nuzzling with their nose, licking, jumping up, paw lifts, teeth clacking, crouching, pretzeling their body, play bows, and smiling. We humans don’t always like these behaviors, but understanding what they mean tells us a great deal about how our dog sees us or other dogs in the household. The best way to eliminate an undesired behavior is to completely ignore it. Dogs do what works for them, and if they don’t get any reward for a behavior it will eventually go away.  

The second category of behaviors are those used for deference and are offered by a dog who perceives a threat. Many things humans do without a second thought are interpreted by dogs as threat displays such as: making direct eye contact, approaching head-on, using a loud voice, bending over, and patting on the head. Common deference behaviors include tail tucking, freezing, averting eye contact or turning the head away, rolling onto the back, and submissively urinating. You must be careful not to punish these behaviors because it can make the dog more defensive. Instead, build the dog’s confidence through positive training so he can feel more in control of his environment.

Lastly, it helps to recognize some common signs of dogs who are feeling stressed and are trying to calm themselves or others. Observe your dog and see if you notice him doing any of the following:  lip licking, yawning, sniffing at the ground, curving to the side when approaching, or blinking.

Humans can mimic these behaviors to communicate to a nervous or fearful dog that we mean no harm.  

It may take awhile, but often a scared dog will slowly approach to sniff you. Let them drive the interaction. A dog who makes up his own mind to do something will progress much faster than a dog who is forced.

Training helps dogs learn some of our human words. If we take the time to learn a little of their language, our ability to 'talk' with them will be greatly enhanced.  

~ Carla Brown is a certified pet dog trainer and the owner of the newly opened Savvy Dog Training and Education Center in Truckee. Comment on her column online at, and suggest future topics if you have a problem pet.

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March 14, 2019