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Monday, October 3, 2011

Understanding Dog Communication

Welcome back to my series on dog communication. Ten years ago I adopted my first dog and since then have spent a great deal of time researching dog behavior. Through my research and what I've been taught by animal behavior experts and dog trainers I've decided to share what I've learned. Understanding dog communication and behavior has helped me create a happy bond with my own dog and my hope is that this information will do the same for you. In this article I would like to share what I've learned about how dog's use their voice to communicate.
As humans we tend to be verbal creatures. This makes it natural for us to expect that barking is the main way that dogs communicate with each other. To a dog, though, barking is far less important than other forms of communication, such as body language or scent marking.
Still, barks, whines, howls, and growls are all ways dogs communicate what they want. To understand this you need to look at the sound the dog is making and the context in which the dogs is "speaking".

Barking is the dog equivalent of human conversation. It's a great way to get the attention of your human or another dog. Dogs also use barking to announce territory and it actually releases stress. After all, who doesn't just feel like letting loose with a good holler or scream now and then to let off a little steam. Different barks can mean different things:
  • A series of high-pitched barks means your dog's worried or lonesome and wants attention.
  • A single bark in her regular voice means she's curious and alert and is making contact.
  • Quick, repetitive, high-pitched barks mean your dog's feeling playful, or has spotted something she wants to chase.
  • A low, repetitive bark-the sort your dog makes when a stranger approaches-means she's feeling defensive or protective.
Growling is one of those sounds your dog may make that unmistakeably means there's something wrong. This is a sound that really needs little interpretation. Dog's also growl, however, when they are frightened and even, sometimes, during play.
  • When your dog combines a growl with a dominance posture, he's feeling aggressive.
  • When he combines a growl with a submissive posture, he's feeling fearful or defensive.
  • A growl during play isn't aggressive.
Howling is the way a dog gets in touch with other dogs, even when they're miles away. A sing-song howl is used to contact other dogs, and means your dog is curious or happy. This is probably the howl you hear when your dog "sings" along with a police siren. It's believed that the sound of the siren is close enough to the sound of another dog that it triggers an instinct in your dog to "answer" or join in. Breeds that were bred to work together as a pack, like sled dogs such as the Husky, seem to have a greater tendency to howl. Others, like my Australian Shepherd, who were bred to work alone don't tend to using howling as a means of communication.
A plaintive, mournful howls is a signal of distress or great loneliness.

Whining or Whimpering
Whining and whimpering are sounds that go back to a dog's puppy-hood, when these sounds got him attention. When your dog is excited or lonesome, he'll whine or whimper to get your attention. These can sound like yawns. When he's stressed, fearful, or worried, he'll give repetitive, squeaky whines that may be punctuated with shrill yaps.

Mixed Messages
We spend a lot of time with our dogs and get to know them pretty well. It's important to remember, however, that we have different methods of communication and our motivations for using certain vocalizations can be entirely different. In many cases we send mixed signals to our dogs. A great example of this is yelling at your dog to try and get her to stop barking. To a dog, however, we are say, "Hey, let's all bark! I'm barking, you're barking, let's bark together!"

Stop Excessive Barking
Teaching a dog to curb his barking can take a lot of time and patience. That's why early on it was one of the first commands I taught my dog. Many trainers believe that teaching a dog to bark on command is the key to training a dog to stop barking. I know this sounds strange but I've found this quite effective.
First, find out what you can do to start your dog barking. Speaking in an excited tone may do it or jumping up and down, running, or waving your arms in an excited way. When your dog starts to bark, praise her by telling her "good bark" or "good speak" and give her a treat. Keep doing this until just giving the command will set her off.
Once she barks on command, it's time to teach her to stop on command. Use the command to get her barking. Then when she pauses between barks, give her a treat and tell her "good quiet." dogs can't bark and chew at the same time,, and most dogs will eagerly swap one activity for the other. Keep practicing this until your dog consistently stops barking when you give the "quiet" command.
The ideas isn't to stop the barking entirely. We want our dogs to let us know when something is wrong and some dogs need to get barking our of their system. They also, however, need to learn to respond to the "quiet" command.
Another key to curbing barking is to make sure your dog gets plenty of exercise and interaction with you. Remember, dogs bark for a reason and many times it's their way of making a connection with you.

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Check back for more information on how dog's communicate. Next time we'll explore how dogs use scent to communicate. Until then, take a look at my webpage,Your Family Pet, for more information about dogs and other common family pets.

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