Speaking of Pets: Are you really listening to your dog when it communicates with you? | VailDaily.com

Speaking of Pets: Are you really listening to your dog when it communicates with you?

By Joan Merriam
Special to the Daily
Dogs use a variety of methods to communicate with their owners – it's up to us to listen.
Special to the Daily

“Sit!” “Come!” “Good dog!” “Bad dog!” 

We expect our dogs to listen when we use these words, but we do a pretty poor job of actually listening to them. Understanding what dogs are communicating means understanding a little about canine behavior.

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A dog’s tail can tell us a lot: if it’s in about the halfway position and waving, it’s a sign of happiness or anticipation. However, if it’s erect like the sail on a ship, the dog is could be either excited or hostile. We know that when a dog’s tail is tucked under, it’s a signal of fear—but it can also be submission.

Ears and eyes can say things too:  If a dog is standing with its tail held high and not moving, with ears laid back, and is either avoiding direct eye contact or giving you the if-looks-could-kill stare, an antagonistic action could be next on its agenda. On the other hand, if its eyes are closed, wide open, and looking at you softly, it’s a sign that he/she is feeling relaxed and friendly. 

What this shows is that dog communication isn’t always easy to read by observing a single behavior; you need to look at the constellation of behaviors to figure out what’s going on.

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Growling and barking

A dog who’s growling or whose lips are pulled back in a snarl is being aggressive, right? Wrong! Often, dogs at play will growl and snarl in ways that may lead you to think they’re bent on killing each other, but it’s all part of play. (You need to step in, however, if it gets out of hand.) 

Dogs that are yawning or licking their lips aren’t necessarily tired or hungry: both of these behaviors can also indicate stress or fear. 

And then there’s barking. Dogs who are lonely, confined, anxious, or afraid can bark nonstop, whereas barking that begins and ends quickly usually means an alert. Dogs do not bark just to bug us—they’re trying to tell us something.

So remember that listening to our dogs means paying attention to everything they’re saying!

Joan Merriam lives in Northern California with her golden retriever Joey and Maine coon cat Indy. She emphasizes that she’s not a veterinarian or animal behaviorist — just an animal lover who’s been writing about pets since 2012. You can reach her at joan@joanmerriam.com.

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