Canine Body Language Myths: Are You Misreading Your Dog’s Signals?

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Home / Canine Body Language Myths: Are You Misreading Your Dog’s Signals?

Our dogs have many ways of communicating with us, but are often misunderstood. Image by butkovicdub

Dogs communicate in a whole host of ways, both with other dogs and humans. Their vocalisations and visual signals (body and facial movements) serve the same purpose and carry the same meanings whether they face an encounter with their best dog buddy, a new canine acquaintance, an unfamiliar person, or just an ordinary day with their owner.

Whilst Juliane Kaminski and Sarah Marshall-Pescini’s book, The Social Dog: Behavior and Cognition, and Anne Gallagher and Gabriella Tami’s research on ‘Description of the behaviour of domestic dog (Canis familiaris) by experienced and inexperienced people’ in 2009 show that many of us can instinctively identify the emotions behind a particular bark or posture, there are a few dog signalling myths that mean the message doesn’t always get across – and, sometimes, it’s important that it does.

So which canine body language myths do we frequently fall foul of?

Dog Myth #1: Wagging Tails Mean Happy Dogs

A dog with a wildly wagging tail must be happy and joyful, right? Wrong. In fact, it’s probably one of the most dangerous myths we let ourselves and our children believe.

Canine ‘calming signalling’ experts such as Turid Rugaas have identified several situations in which dogs use their tails as a warning signal, or as a way to communicate to us that something alarms them, and it is one of the many methods they employ in an attempt to calm alarming situations.

In her book, On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals, Rugaas explains that when seen in combination with crawling, creeping, or urinating, a quickly wagging tail is likely an indication that a dog is fearful; similarly, Sarah Kalnajs’ collected footage in ‘The Language of Dogs’ clearly documents that dogs who are experiencing negative emotions frequently wag their tails.

Of course, it is far more common to see a tail wag that is borne of pure happiness, but it’s important to know that this isn’t always the case, and the tail viewed in isolation doesn’t tell us much about the way a dog is feeling at all. While sometimes tricky to read, the bottom line is to never assume that a wagging tail means a dog is friendly and ready to play.

Dog Myth #2 : Growling Dogs Are Angry

Dogs frequently use growling in play. Image by pippalou

We humans are quick to assume that a growling dog means harm to us or our own canine companion. Sometimes we’re right, but few realise that dogs use growling as effectively in play as it is in the context of food guarding or trepidation.

The work of Tamas Farago in ‘The bone is mine: affective and referential aspects of dog growling’ confirms that dogs are naturally able to switch between and recognise these contextual growls.

In fact, dogs maintain such control over their auditory signalling that they are even able to skew another’s perception of their bodily size by altering the composition of a growl, yet these subtleties are inevitably lost on their human family members.

Dog Myth #3 : Dogs Who Jump Up Are Trying to Dominate Us

We all know dogs whose usual ritual for greeting you at the door is to jump up and joyfully receive strokes and attention, and acknowledge that this is friendly (if sometimes a little boisterous!) behaviour.

Years of misguided advice from well-meaning dog trainers that dogs are essentially wolves who need their owners to dominate them (advice which, thanks to research such as John W. S. Bradshaw and his colleagues’ ‘Dominance in domestic dogs – useful construct or bad habit?’, we now know is incorrect), have also led to dog owners across the world believing that when their dogs jump up at them in other situations, they are attempting to dominate.

In reality, jumping up is one of many active submission or appeasement behaviours dogs employ. In a situation where an owner is initiating verbal or physical reprimands and the dog responds by jumping up, it is not ‘arguing’ in an effort to assert its dominance – it is unsure what to do, potentially distressed, and attempting to appease its owner.

Your dog could be telling you he is feeling anxious, rather than tired, when he yawns. Image by Gaborfromhungary

Dog Myth #4: Yawning Dogs Are Tired

Dogs, like us, do yawn when they’re tired. They also yawn when they feel stressed, anxious, or wish to calm a situation in which they find themselves involved. If your dog yawns when you get out a brush a begin to groom him, he’s most likely trying to tell you that he’s not entirely happy with what’s happening.

If he yawns when you pull him onto your lap and hug him tightly, he’s giving you a sign that he’s not comfortable with being held quite so closely. It is one of many deliberate signals used to calm both the dog himself and attempt to modify the behaviour of the person or animal with whom he is interacting.

There is also evidence from Joly Macheroni and fellow researchers in ‘Dogs catch human yawns’ that dogs exhibit cross-species yawning contagion, as they frequently respond in kind when observing human yawns.

Whilst it is argued that this provides support for the theory that dogs are able to effectively empathise with their human companions, others, such as Sean J. O’Hara and Amy V. Reeve in their 2011 paper, ‘A test of the yawning contagion and emotional connectedness hypothesis in dogs’ argue that it is a primitive and nonconscious ‘copying’ behaviour, used to establish and strengthen social bonds.

Evolving Our Connected Social Cognition

Despite the unique relationship between humans and dogs having led to some shared cognitive skills and abilities, some misinterpretations do exist in our intertwined lives. We still have some way to go before truly understanding our dogs’ signs and signals becomes second nature.

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