Our dogs have ways of communicating with us, but are often misunderstood. Dogs communicate in a whole host of ways, both with other dogs and humans. Their vocalizations 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 behavior 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 signaling 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.
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 realize 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 recognize 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.
To be continued...