Arf, Arf, Woof! The Language of Dogs

Our best friends speak through action

When you come home, your Welsh corgi Buster greets you happily, but you’re almost sure there’s something else on his mind besides that welcome home ritual.
    Or your chocolate Labrador, who’s always ready for fetch, has a couple of comments. If dogs used words to communicate, he might tell you, Come home from the office earlier. I want to play more fetch.
    Canines can’t communicate through spoken language. Of course, there is more to language than sound. Hearing-impaired individuals communicate through sign language.
    A dog’s primary communication tools, in order of importance, are scent, body language and vocal sounds.
    Dogs live in a world of odors. Smells are a form of communication, a way to mark territory and a method of tracking friends and enemies as well as finding food.
    Dogs’ movements and vocalizations also reveal how they feel and relate to the rest of the world.
    “One of the ways dogs communicate is through barking and growling,” says Katherine Houpt, a board-certified veterinarian in clinical animal behavior at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
    If you look at a sonogram of a dog’s bark and a growl, she explains, you can see a difference between the two. There are more frequencies to an aggressive growl than a friendly bark. In general, lower-pitched sounds are warnings and higher-pitched sounds are inviting and friendly.

The Language of Dogs

    “The average dog has the language capabilities of a two-year-old child,” says Stanley Coren, professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
    So the smarter the dog, the more words he is capable of learning. Coren, the author of How to Speak Dog: Mastering the Art of Dog-Human Communications, says the top 25 percent of super dogs — poodles, border collies and shepherds — can learn about 250 words.
    “Average dogs learn around 165 to 200 words,” he says. “Dogs learn what they are rewarded for or what they associate with punishment.
    “Studies in the journal Science looked at a German border collie named Rico. He learns using a principle called fast tracking that we had thought only humans and apes knew,” Coren adds.
    It works this way. The researchers placed half a dozen items on the floor in front of Rico and told him to go get the framis. The dog had never heard this made-up word, but he was able to deduce which one was the requested item because he knew the names of the other items on the floor.
    “Dogs learn that a walk is a walk, a ride in a car is a ride and a treat is Milk Bones,” explained Houpt. “Rico knows 400 words. This is the highest word count dogs have been able to learn.”

Signals Dogs Use

    As Houpt explains, dogs use vocal communications that include yip, howl, whine, whimper, bark and growl.
    Postures dogs use include ears down, tail up or down. A slowly wagging tail is usually a sign of aggression and the stiffer the tail, the more aggressive the dog. About dogs who have docked tails, Houpt says, “It’s just a bit harder to read their tail signals.”
    Another communicator, says Houpt, the Cornell vet, is “the play bow, where the dog’s hindquarter is up and the head is down. That’s a signal that says let’s play.”
    Some dogs grin and show their teeth in a friendly and submissive situation. An angry dog shows its teeth, raises its lip and the hackles, or hair on its back.
    “Piloerection,” says Coren, is the raising of the hair on a dog’s back. Each pattern tells a story. “If the hair rises on the shoulders,” he says, “this is a dog that is fearful.”
    It’s all in knowing what these actions mean.
    “Generally speaking, a dog is sending signals all the time,” Coren says.

It’s in the Breeding

    Dogs use eye contact with us and will follow our gaze. If we point at something, our canine companion will follow that gaze, look at the item, then look back at us.
    Coren agrees with Houpt that we breed dogs specifically to pick up on human signals. “When we point at an object with our hand, yes, a dog will look in that direction. But a wolf will continue to look at our hand.”
    Dogs, even young puppies, pick up on each human signal without having to learn them, says Houpt.
    There’s a reason for that trait. In history, animals that picked up on human signals were allowed to reproduce because humans liked the ability. Dogs are good at picking up our signals; better than most other animals.
    Observe your dog. He is trying to tell you more than you might think. But English is not his first language. You’ll have to listen to his body language to understand the language of dog.