More Than Meets The Eye: Dog Language And Beyond Part III

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!

Related articles:
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


  1. I said it on twitter, and I'll say it all over the place if I have to =P ... Jasmine is such a wonderful little lady. I'm very glad she is the way she is. She reminds me of a very good older sister; I bet J.D. is all sorts of estatic to have her. =]
    This prompted me to think a lot about what Kittie - who isn't as polite - does when she encounters other dogs. ...She's a sweetie, and more nervous about people than most dogs, but she can spot a potential problem-child the moment she walks into the daycare doors.
    Still, she'll give 'em a chance and wrap herself in a calming curve, which is her way of saying "Here's how!"
    She lets a lot of bullying behavior slide for a while - every boy dog she meets tries to get a piece (poor girl) and usually they give up and play like a normal doggie after a few minutes. If not, she'll flip around and bear her teeth in a bark/grrrr.
    I know that says "enough already," but don't know what this says, ----> every dog she has done it to that was trying to hump her has plopped onto his belly and looked up at her.
    They kind of stay there until she invites a chase game. (She is my tennis ball. We go outside, and she runs greyhound style while all of the other dogs herd her. She's a little pissy about being caught by some of the dogs - she stops and concedes she's lost if they catch her, but if you come up and bite her she'll bark at you in such a way that says "EFFING STOP THAT!")
    Also, she bares her teeth a lot, which none of the dogs have ever taken offense to, but I think it has more to do with who Kittie is than what they think she's intending. She bares her teeth when she's chewing on stuff, she bares her teeth to take a treat - very nicely - from your hand, she bares her teeth when she has gas... etc etc.
    She's very different from Jasmine. Each dog is different, but it kind of puts it into perspective to think about how differently they speak to other dogs.
    Anyway, sorry for the long rant.
    Loved the blog.
    I always love them. =]

  2. I love long rants! O_o

    Jasmine will give a good snarl and bare her teeth when subtle message is not getting across. I think it's a girl thing. Noticed that in many girl dogs in the part too.

    If enough is enough, they'll growl and snarl and bear their teeth.

    Unlike the boys though, they are all about the noise and scare tactics, while boy would already have been in a fight at that point.

    Jasmine really 'measures' when and how much go snarl. Once with daughter's chihuahua it was amazingly obvious.

    The chihuahua was just about to jump up on my husband. Jasmine saw that and took a deep breath to give her heck. The chihuahua already knew Jasmine well enough to know she shouldn't jump, so she quickly changed her mind and did not jump. And Jasmine did not snarl, even though she's already taken a deep breath to do so! I thought that was quite amazing.

  3. Well said!!!

    I often try to read other dog's body language or simply observe, but you are right. Dogs get it better than we humans ever can. Doesn't stop me from trying either.

    BTW - Your Jasmine sounds a lot like Sasha, a dog we used to walk with at the dog park until her parents moved to Arizona. She was amazing with my fearful Daisy. She seemed to get it and gave Daisy her space. I know it's a human interpretation to say this, but Daisy seemed to look up to her. She loved to see Sasha at the park and would often mimic her behavior. Like Jasmine, Sasha couldn't tolerate bullies and sometimes would put them in their place, if needed, but often she steered clear.

    The more I read about Jasmine the more I just love her. What a sweet girl!

  4. We do need to keep trying. Often not only to better understand our dogs, but also ourselves. Our own communication is 93% non-verbal! And yet we grew oblivious to that. Hardly makes any sense.

    Some dogs seem to have the gift to dealing with fearful dogs. I think it's the confident ones that don't feel they have to prove anything. I think some of the seem to exhibit compassion!

    I do believe that some dogs do look up to others! Many dogs look up to Jasmine and she certainly looked up to Sonya.

    J.D. does look up to Jasmine. He yields to her, watches what she does and learns from her and when faced with an unfamiliar situation he looks to her as what to do.

    I bet Sasha and Jasmine would get along beautifully!

  5. Great post. Frankie is fearful in general but responds differently to different dogs that try to engage him in greetings or play. In most cases he just shies away and hides behind me. Sometime, though he stands his ground, bares his teeth and growls. The other dog usually gets the message -- or the owner (who hasn't done anything to keep her dog away, in spite of my indication that I'm not encouraging any contact) does.

    Jasmine sounds like she would make a great therapy dog, by the way. Ever consider putting her to work? ;-)

  6. Hi Edie! :-)

    In my observation there are very few dogs who approach fearful dogs well. There are also dogs, the bullies, who find that to be an opportunity to prove something. In some it triggers right down aggression.

    Responding differently to different dogs makes perfect sense. I learned from Jasmine that even two dogs who seemingly are behaving exactly the same will get different response from her. To her it is the intentions behind the behavior that count. I imagine most dogs can read that to various degree.

    Yeah, Jasmine would make a fantastic therapy dog for fearful and shy dogs! Putting her to work has been on my mind, but I am having difficulties figuring out how to make the logistics work.

    1. I utilize Brynda (my boxer mix) and her abilities with shy and fearful dogs all the time. She is the linchpin when I'm working with client dogs. If you'd like to discuss how I do it and how Jasmine could help you, let me know.

  7. I'd love to hear/or publish how you do it!


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