The more I learn, the more I learn how little I know.The more I learn about dog language, the more I notice how many things get lost in translation. While some conversations seem fairly obvious, there is often more to it than meets the eye.
In many ways, it reminds me of poetry study at school. You read a poem—the words are more or less familiar—and yet often the words have very little to do with the actual meaning. Remember those?
Just take a look at something as familiar as a tail wag. To most people, a wagging tail means a happy dog. Is that always true? No, not always. Is the tail wagging slowly or fast? How fast? Is it in a relaxed position or erect? What is the rest of the body saying? Suddenly you have dozens of different meanings of a simple tail wag. There are people who have been bitten by their own dog because they didn't read this properly!
Don't despair! With some effort, you can learn to speak dog quite fluently. But are we ever going to be able to read all the nuances? Well, I am hopeful …
Sharing my life with dogs I learned two things. First, a human will never read dog language as well as a dog can, and second, you can learn the most from observing your own dog. Watch not only how your dog communicates with you, but also how he communicates with other dogs and how he responds to them. There is a lot to be learned by simple observation.
If your dog meets a seemingly calm and friendly dog, but his hackles go up, take note and look for clues. There is clearly more going on than you thought.
Nobody could teach me more about dog communication than Jasmine. She is a smart girl and she sees through everybody like glass—humans and dogs alike.
One of the first things I noticed was that she has a completely different approach to each individual dog. You will seldom see her greet one dog the same way as another. Sometimes the difference is subtle, sometimes very noticeable. At a first glance, there is no difference between the message those dogs are sending.
Let's take shy dogs for example. What we see is a shy dog. What Jasmine sees is a shy dog, a shy dog with some degree of fear, a shy dog with potential, a shy dog who is a bully in disguise …
With a shy, fearful dog Jasmine might take the 'I don't see any dogs around here' approach. She will wander off and find something really interesting to sniff, completely ignoring the other dog. She keeps ignoring the dog as it comes over to check her out. Then they'll exchange some sniffs. Several minutes later, they'll be playing.
With a shy dog with potential Jasmine might take a more proactive role, gently teasing the dog into play.
Watching Jasmine with other dogs is quite fascinating. She loves confident dogs as much as shy or fearful ones.
The only dogs Jasmine does not like are rude dogs or bullies. She will have none of that. Some of those might behave quite rudely. But it did take me quite a while to discover the subtle signs of why Jasmine doesn't take kindly to some of the dogs who seemingly didn't do anything wrong.
For the longest time, we believed that Jasmine didn't like active and bouncy dogs, particularly puppies, simply because she didn't like fast movements. But then she would meet a puppy and they would get along just swimmingly...
As I got to watch some of those puppies grow up, suddenly it clicked. The best example is our neighbors' Rottie. He was the cutest puppy you could imagine. High energy, looked like he had springs instead of legs. Jasmine would not allow him to come anywhere near her. Yes, he was jumping on everybody, but isn't that what all puppies do?
The other day we met him at the dog park. He is quite grown now, still very cute. But what do you know—a typical bully. Trying to dominate every dog in the park, putting his chin on their shoulders, trying to hump everything that moved. When faced with a confident dog though, he would run screaming (literally).
Have you ever met those dogs who love to bully the weak but run away from the strong? He is the type.
And Jasmine knew that the first moment she saw him. Jasmine is big on mutual respect, and he wasn't showing any. She was not going to interact with him until he learned some.
J.D. [Jasmine's dog] is a guy, and his approach to things is different. But even with him, I can see the difference in the way he acts with some of the other dogs. Sometimes it is obvious why, but sometimes it is not.
Cesar Milan believes that inner energy is an invisible part of animal communication. It would surely explain many things. It would explain why our guys might not like a dog who seems perfectly fine to us. It would also explain why Jasmine doesn't get sprayed by a skunk even though she'd be barking at it and carrying on, trying to get it to play with her.
Whether it's inner energy or some nuances of dog body language that we're not seeing, I think that nobody will ever understand a dog as well as another dog. But no harm in trying, is there?
I believe that having a primer in dog language will give you the basic vocabulary and without that foundation, you won't get very far. But understanding the words and being able to appreciate a poem is not the same thing. Watch your dog. Observe, learn and enjoy!
A Word on Training
More Than Meets The Eye: Dog Language And Beyond Part I
More Than Meets The Eye: Dog Language And Beyond Part II