Dogs Use Their Whole Bodies to Communicate; We Need to Listen

We need to move past "puppy love," which often includes doing things to dogs they don't want.

Casey Lomonaco  |  Sep 25th 2014


When I was young, I wanted to kiss and hug every dog I met. I was in the throes of puppy love, and I would respond to these feelings by reaching toward a dog for a pat on the head, or bending over them to give them a good scratch. At night, I would fall asleep dreaming of a world where I could communicate with dogs; where dogs could tell me how they feel about things and I could respond in a meaningful way.

Imagine my shock when I began exploring modern dog behavior and found out that dogs are talking to us all the time, and that there were ways that I could communicate with them in return. I embarked on a rigorous course of study in DSL 101: Dog as a Second Language.

You know the sound tires make when they squeal against pavement as you slam on the brakes? That sound pounded through my head as I realized, “Yikes. Now I understand what dogs are saying, I don’t really like some of the stuff they’re telling me.”

I began to realize that so many of the things I did as a child to show dogs I loved them — the bending over to offer scratches or a hug, reaching toward a dog to show him I was friendly — were actually unwanted.

Listen to what your dog is silently telling you

Humans are excessively vocal creatures, so we rely on spoken word primarily, using body language almost as an adjunct, to communicate with others. While dogs do use a variety of vocalizations to communicate, from squeals to howls to barks to whines to snaffles (that last is for you, brachycephalics!), vocalizations are only one continent in a whole world of doggy communications. I did not realize that virtually every part of a dog’s body had its own dialogue, that dogs are communicating from their teeth to their tail virtually all the time.

Essentially, my “puppy love” stage when I was young was infatuation. Actual, mature love is built of tougher stuff — listening as much as (or more than) you talk. Love is taking the other party’s feelings into consideration. Love is letting your husband stay home and rock the bass, even though you’d enjoy having him with you, because you know he doesn’t like your girlfriend the drunken close-talker who will be at the bar. (You’re welcome, Jim!)

I started noticing that dog people can often be separated into two groups: puppy love folks and true dog lovers. Here are some of the differences between the two.

Puppy love folks don’t recognize “brainwashed” dogs

Puppy love folks see a video like this one, which made the rounds on Facebook recently. Half a dozen or so German Shepherds are being paraded off-leash (flouting local leash laws, by the way) through a village, all within an arm’s length of their handler. The handler appears to have a good level of compliance from the dogs, who don’t stray to investigate their environment.

To puppy love people, it looks like the consummate training achievement. Pass that same video around to dog lovers who are well-versed in canine body language, and the comments look quite different. A colleague of mine hit the proverbial nail on the head when she described the dogs as “Stepford dogs.”

Every single colleague who responded, regardless of training methodology (and this crowd included the full gamut from force-free trainers to trainers who would be considered more traditional), was horrified.

What they saw were dogs with no bravado. German Shepherds, as their fanciers will attest, should have a little swagger; a special spark in their eyes that pops up when the opportunity to work presents itself via a well-trained cue. What they should not be is downtrodden, and that’s how these dogs appeared to me; lowered heads, lowered tails, slinky movement. None of the proud puffed-up chest I like to see in a GSD that says, “You wanna work? Bring it.”

Regardless of breed, what I don’t see in this video is an owner who respects dogs for their dogginess. I am not impressed by a dog who never sniffs a single thing in his environment — I am saddened. This is a creature denied his very doggyness! What is far more impressive to me is a dog that can be cued to go investigate where it is safe and appropriate, and return to work at his owner’s request even when he is investigating something rather interesting. A dog walk with no sniffs is not a dog walk, it’s just sad.

More differences between puppy love and real dog love

Puppy love means letting your dog off leash wherever you want just because he enjoys being off leash. Real dog lovers know that the first rule of responsible dog ownership is never to let your dog become someone else’s problem; this entails cleaning up after them and obeying local leash laws (even if your dog is well-behaved off-leash), because the relationship between laws and the people that obey them is inverse — more legislation is a typical response to poor compliance.

Puppy love is squealing at how adorable an infant sitting on a dog is. Real love is seeing that the dog’s forehead is wrinkled in concern, the whites of his eyes are prominent in a “whale eye” display, that he is pulling away from the child, and that even nice dogs shouldn’t have to tolerate being treated like carnival rides.

Puppy love folks watch a reality television show about dog training and marvel at how amazing it is that severe behavior problems are “cured” in the 22 minutes left in between commercials. Real dog lovers know that relationships, and solving the problems they sometimes involve, take a lot of time, patience, and commitment.

Puppy love folks take their dogs to the dog park or a doggy fundraising walk surrounded by hundreds of other dogs, people, children, noises, and chaos, and think, “What a lot of fun that was!” While they were busy posting pictures to Facebook from their smartphone, they didn’t hear their dog (silently) pleading, “I hate this, please get me out of here,” because he couldn’t say or text it, he could only tell them through his increased rate of respiration, decreased appetite, excessive yawning or lip licking or avoidance.

The good news is that puppy love is a gateway love. For those who fall under its spell and want to take their relationships with dogs to a new level, resources abound that offer insights into dog body language and how we can each grow in our ability to recognize and appropriately respond to our dogs. Your first assignment in DSL 101? Read the articles below and use them as a starting point to learn everything you can.

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