<< Return to Index     < Previous: Preventing Dog Bites    Next: Canine Good Citizens >

Lost in Translation
By Ali Johnson

I love to hug my dogs. And I'm not alone. In her book The Other End of the Leash, Patricia McConnell explains that, 'because of our primate heritage, we seek what's called 'ventral ventral' contact-pressing our chests together as a way of expressing affection.' But the catch to this warm and loving gesture on our part is that dogs are not primates. In fact, most dogs do not enjoy being restrained, and may even feel threatened by it. Look carefully at your dog when you hug him-does he lower his head? Do his eyes get a little wider? Does he plaster his ears along the sides of his head? If he does, hugging may not be as enjoyable for him as it is for you. This is not to say that many dogs don't understand that we humans mean no harm by hugging, or that some don't enjoy it. Dogs are often tolerant and even appreciative of our primate gestures, so hug away! Just watch your buddy and remember that what makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside may not always be as rewarding for him. (The smell of dead deer and cat poop are two prime examples of our differing preferences in comparison to our dogs'.)

How can we tell how Fido is feeling? Thankfully, dogs give us a wealth of information in their body language. Their eyes, ears, lips, posture, and tail all contribute to expression of their feelings. Think about how your pup looks before you feed her-ears up and forward, face relaxed, tail wagging-the picture of a confident, relaxed and happy pup. And what about her expression when it is time for a bath or a nail clipping session? Ears laid back, avoiding eye contact, lowering her head and tucking her tail-everything about her says, 'I don't want to do that, please go away.' What about the dog watching a stranger approach? If the tail is up and wagging, it may not be in welcome, but rather in warning. A wagging tail is an indicator of excitement. But as anyone who has felt their cheeks grow warm with frustration or anger knows, feeling animated is not the same as feeling happy. A wagging tail and forward ears may signal that the dog is agitated.

How can you learn to read the more subtle differences? In addition to The Other End of the Leash by Patricia McConnell, the books On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals by Turid Rugaas and Dog Language by Roger Abrantes can help you learn the signals that dogs use to communicate with one another, the same ones they try, often unsuccessfully, to use with us. In addition to reading about dog body language, you can learn a lot from watching dogs interact with one other. Joining a local dog park or going to a puppy socialization class are both ways to see how dogs communicate.

One of the most common miscommunications that dogs either patiently endure or come to enjoy is human greeting behavior. To politely greet someone, we move directly toward them, make direct eye contact, show our teeth and extend a hand. Most of this is considered quite rude in terms of canine etiquette! Watch two polite dogs greet one another-generally they approach the stranger dog in a curve, rather than directly; showing another dog your side is considered quite polite. Also, by glancing at the other dog only briefly, averting their eyes, and then glancing again, they signal to their new friend that they don't wish to appear threatening. When the two dogs come into contact, they will usually sniff noses, and then take a couple of steps forward to sniff behinds. This is not what we expect when we walk into a business meeting! In fact, I'm certain I have never been greeted this way by a new acquaintance!

By approaching a new dog directly, looking into their eyes, smiling, and then looming over them to touch the top of their head or neck, we are pushing the social patience of most dogs in every greeting. We can modify our greeting to a more polite version by approaching at an angle, making only gentle and temporary eye contact, and letting the dog choose to sniff your hand. If the dog still appears welcoming, a few pets on the chest and under the chin are polite ways to 'shake hands.'

By striving to understand our voiceless friends, we can continue to build our relationships with them. One of the greatest gifts that dogs bestow on us is their honesty about how they are feeling. We can trust them to tell us the truth, and to forgive us for our misguided but well-intentioned efforts at canine social etiquette.