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by Rolan Tripp, DVM and Susan Tripp, MS/P

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Famous Quote

"I talk to him when I'm lonesome and I'm sure he understands.
     When he looks at me so attentively, and gently
licks my hands; then he rubs
 his nose on my tailored clothes,
but I never say  a threat. 
For the good Lord knows I can buy more clothes, but never
a friend like that!"

- W. Dayton Wedgefarth-
Video of Interest

Body Language
of Play
in puppies



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What is Canine Communication?

Imagine this scenario. Your dog barks at something outdoors, waking you up. You get up reluctantly, and tell your dog "stop" with clear annoyance in your voice tone, staring at your dog feeling stiff from just waking up.

Your dog turns his head sideways and licks his nose in one quick response. You grab the leash and your dog begins to circle around in excitement.

You instruct, "Sit" so you can hook on the leash. Your dog responds to your firm instructioning tone with a sit and yawn. On the walk, your dog pulls a little on the leash.

You jerk him back and his nose goes to the ground which annoys you so you jerk the leash again. Your dog lies down and refuses to budge. After a few minutes, in a pleading voice you say, "Come on, let's go," with your back to your dog. He gets up slowly and follows you.

You arrive at the local dog park and let your dog off leash. As strange dogs approach him, he turns his head sideways or slowly walks toward them in a curve. Sometimes, he licks his nose and lies down. At other times, he freezes tail straight out, head to one side and allows a dog sniffs his rear end.

Dogs use and read "calming signals" in order to avoid conflict. Although subtle, you can learn to read and give these signals.

What just happened?
You could have communicated better with your dog. Blessed are the peacemakers! Dogs share a universal language, some communicating better than others, with a natural goal and behaviors to avoid conflict. Why on earth would we ever threaten our dogs? Sadly, people do not understand dogs and how they communicate or how to communicate to dogs in gentle, effective body language.

Head turning
Dogs turn when uncomfortable and to signal another dog to calm down. A head turn is like a person saying, "Uncle." A turned head averts a direct gaze, Dogs give and understand a direct gaze as a threat or challenge. Dogs turn their heads to give polite, not "in your face" greetings.

bullet Turn your head to the side when you want to send a calming signal to a dog.If a dog is jumping up on you, turn to the side and give no eye contact to help calm your dog.

Nose licking
Dogs signal with quick nose licks or tongue flicks to help calm themselves down or to send a calming signal to others. When people lean over or reach out to touch dogs, or when a group of children approach the dog, watch for a quick nose lick.

bullet If your dog nose licks when you ask for a sit, use a more neutral voice tone. Dogs are eager to please so instruct not instruction or threaten your dog. You can insist by gently placing your dog in a sit position if your dog ignores you. Using a Gentle Leader head collar is the easiest, safest way to insist on a sit.

Dogs yawn when they feel uncertain, stressed, a little scared or worried. Dogs yawn when they are yelled at or punished. Dogs yawn in the veterinary exam room. Dogs yawn when children hug them. 

bullet Yawning contagious to people and to canines. To help your dog calm down, try yawning and see if your dog yawns back.
bullet If a puppy gets too excited when chasing a child and begins to grab at the shoe laces or pant legs, have the child stop and yawn to help calm the puppy a bit.

Sitting and lying down
Dogs will sit or lie down to help calm another dog or situation. Sitting and lying down are  two ways dogs respond to calm a threat or a perceived threat.

bullet You are outdoors when a strange dog begins charging your dog from a distance. Turn your dog away from the charging dog and tell your dog to sit or lie down to take the wind out of the other dog's sails and help avert a conflict.

Lovey eyes
Canines and felines respond positively to "lovey eyes." Dogs and cats soften their eyes by lowering the lids to appear less threatening. In contrast, a "whale eye" signals fear and stress.

bullet Use lovey eyes to calm cats or dogs to signal friendly and relaxed not a threat.

Ears back
Canines and felines put their ears back when unsure, anxious, afraid or feeling threatened.

The tail tells
Canines and felines put their tails straight up when feeling confident. Dogs are cats both twitch or wag their tails in a stiff line at mid height when they are annoyed and to signal a pending threat. Happy tail wags are attached to a wiggly, relaxed dog.

Move slowly
Canines move at a snails pace to send calming signals

bullet Teach children to be still and move very slowly to help a dog relax around them.

Canines put their noses to the ground to calm another dog or person. It's as if they are saying, "Don't mind me. I am minding my own business."  If you call your dog using a harsh voice, your dog's head may drop to the ground in a sniffing gesture in response.

bullet If your dog sniffs or lies down when you call, make yourself less threatening. Turn your back or crouch to the ground with open arms and use a cheerful voice tone.

Mature dogs rarely approach each other straight on. Instead they make a wide curve or arc to send a calming signal.

Try signaling an approaching dog who is fearful  by curving, sniffing, licking your lips, head turning, body turning or sitting on the ground.

Play bow
Dogs put the front legs down on the ground with their rumps in the air to release tension and show a friendly greeting. When dogs play bow, especially when jumping from side to side, they want to play.

bullet Have some fun with your dog. Imitate a play bow when you start a game with your dog. Play bow (in dog language) and watch your dog's response.

Pawing the air
Dogs paw at the air or paw at you twhen they want your attention or want to play. Dogs are confused when people hit them because in dog language pawing at the air is a friendly gesture.

bullet Teach your dog to "high five" or "shake" as a positive outlet for normal behavior.

"Dogs and wolves have strong instincts for conflict solving, communication and cooperation."  Turid Rugaas

Pounce and retreat
Dogs like to play tag, too!  Pouncing and retreating means,  "Come on, chase me.  It will be fun!"  

bullet Make sure to use a toy as the obect of the chase game. You do not want to teach your dog to chase and grab at clothing, shoes or hands.

Prancing, zig zagging and leaping in the air

Dogs prance, jump and zig-zag when they are excited and happy. You can think of this behavior as the dog literally jumping for joy. So, why do people yell or punish dogs for this normal, loving expression?

bullet If you want to calm your dog without raining on his parade, turn your side or back and crouch down until your dog settles.
bullet Reach out your hand and put a thumb in the collar to keep your dog back in a sit position as your warmly greet your dog or hook on the leash

An individual dog may show any combination of  signals.

Rugaas, T. (2006). On talking terms with dogs: Calming signals. Wenatcchee, Washington: Dogwise Publishing.

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