Learning to “Speak Dog” Part 1: Why You Should Care About Understanding Your Dog

Posted on May 23, 2012
Learning to “Speak Dog” Part 1: Why You Should Care About Understanding Your Dog

from the Photo Lab

Read others in this series: Introduction  |  Part 1  |  Part 2  |  Part 3  |  Part 4  |  Part 5

“Living with a dog–trying to understand a dog, to read his or her behavior and emotional state–is such a complex blend of reality and imagination, such a daily mix of hard truths and wild stabs in the dark.”
– Pack of Two, Caroline Knapp

It is estimated that 62 percent of all households in the United States have a pet; of those, 78.2 million are dogs and According to the latest research and data, There Are Around 60.2 to 62 Million Pet Cats In The USA. Approximately 5 million to 7 million companion animals enter animal shelters nationwide every year. But if cats and dogs are the world’s most popular pets, why are so many surrendered to shelters? The possible answers are too many to list here and regardless, the spectrum is too wide and varied to make a generalization. Some people are genuinely heartbroken at having to give up their animals for reasons beyond their control, while with others we are lucky if they even bother to bring them into a shelter at all.

But more and more, a BIG reason behind relinquishing a pet is incompatibility and behavior problems. These behavior problems range from “the dog chews everything in sight” or “this cat is spraying everywhere” to “the dog has lunged and/or bitten people and/or other dogs.”

This is what strikes me: dogs and cats have been our closest companions for tens of thousands of years. The pet industry (with an estimated present worth of $52.87 billion) was one of, if not the only one that remained strong during the recent economic downturn. We enjoy dogs in books and movies like Lassie, Turner and Hooch and The Artist, we watch cat videos on YouTube and it’s funny how we can be a in a room full of people, but it only takes one dog (or cat) to humanize the place. Yet… what do we really know about them? Our so-called best friends and life companions? Up until recently, studying dogs was considered silly and not worth any serious scientist’s time. But thankfully, tides are starting to change thanks to many new interesting studies, behaviorists, trainers, veterinarians and scientists writing books and giving lectures, and increased spotlights on our four-legged friends with T.V. shows and documentaries, some are fantastic and educational, and some not so much… unfortunately, the last of which runs the risk of causing the Grey’s Anatomy effect: “I watch the Dog Whisperer, therefore, I know how to deal with difficult dogs.” “I watch Grey’s Anatomy, therefore, I know how to do brain surgery.” When dealing with a behavior problem of ANY kind, consulting a professional is the way to go.

So, why should you care about understanding canine behavior?
In my eyes, it is this simple: You want a good relationship with a dog? Then proper communication is essential. Gone are the days of a one-sided conversation, not with all the wonderful information available to you. Dogs will not answer back in English or in Lassie-like form (“Lassie! is Timmy hurt?!” “bark! bark!”), but they speak their needs and emotions with their body and behavior, if you just have the patience to observe. Good communication has a way of establishing trust and trust has a wonderful way of weaving a friendship doesn’t it? If you still need another reason why you should care, how about keeping more families together, preventing more dog bites, dog fights and keeping more animals out of shelters, not to mention raising, caring for and training happy, healthy and stable four-legged friends? It all sounds good to me.

Let’s enter the Twilight Zone for a few minutes and imagine yourself in this little scenario… This is you we are talking about. Think of how You would react if this happened to you. Are you an introvert, an extrovert or somewhere in between and how would that change your reaction? Here we go…
You walk into a room and you find a few people in there. It doesn’t matter how you got there, you don’t even remember. You have never met these people before and you are watching them trying to figure out what to do next when one of them approaches you at a fast pace, stretches a hand over and touches your hair (yikes!). Then, pats you on the back and tries to look for something in your jacket pockets (remember, you’ve never seen these people before). They start to speak, and you realize you are not understanding a word they are saying, it is not English, and it is not any language you’ve heard before but it is clear they want you to understand them because they keep repeating themselves, you just don’t really know what they want… As you fail to “guess” what they want by moving around the room and picking up things, pointing at something, trying to ask them what it is they want, they are starting to get frustrated. You feel it, you see it in their face and posture, you hear it in their voice. How would you react? What would you do? How does it make you feel?

Back to the present dimension. Has it ever occurred to you that maybe a scenario like this could be something similar to what a dog goes through? Maybe it is a new dog at the shelter, getting evaluated (more on behavior evaluations later in the series), maybe it is a puppy in his new home? Either way and whatever the scenario, seeing things from a dog’s point of view might help us get a better understanding and therefore find a better way to communicate. Try to literally put yourself in your dogs shoes… er… paws. Try to see the world through their eyes and address each situation with two perspectives: yours and theirs. We are humans right? We are capable of doing amazing things like that. That is after all, the meaning of compassion. The etymology of “compassion” is Latin, meaning “co-suffering.” More virtuous than simple empathy, compassion is defined as an active desire to alleviate another’s suffering. This is not to say that all dogs are suffering, thank goodness there are so many wonderful people like you out there who care about them and do everything in your power to provide a happy life for them; but dogs that are dealing with some behavior issue are suffering in some way, shape or form, (really, who likes being afraid or insecure?) and the way to help is to understand where the root of the problem is. I believe there is much we can learn from both scenarios. What makes happy, healthy dogs and what causes dogs to be fearful or aggressive?

Try a Little Experiment: Cultivating the tools you’ll need
We talk to our dogs, the way we talk to another person. They listen with their ears, but also their eyes. They take into account how we stand, where our hands are, our expressions, they listen to the tone in our voice. They take it ALL in. Yes, they can learn words through repetition and consistency, but in a sentence like “Harvey, I need you to be a good boy and come here because mommy needs kisses, it’s been a long, hard day”, Harvey the dog is more likely to understand the words “come here”, “good boy”, “kisses” and take in the rest through our body, voice and expression, versus just the spoken words, that is assuming that he has learned and associated those words with a meaning and an action to follow.

Try this:
1) Next time you are conversing with a friend, try to listen like your dog would: Say nothing, just use all your senses and take it all in.
2) Likewise, next time you talk to your dog, use the words you know he is familiar with in a sentence. Speak slowly, softly and emphasize words you know he’ll recognize. What do you see? How does your dog react?
3) Go on a “sniff walk”. Instead of you deciding where you want to walk with your dog, try and let him (or his nose) decide. This will take some patience and time of course, but that is EXACTLY what you’ll need, and LOTS of it. Obviously, don’t let your dog follow his nose into trouble but do try to let him use his nose and stop when he stops. In other words, stop and smell the roses, it’s good for you. For those of you training your dog to walk politely by your side, this might seem like breaking the rules, so here’s what we did with our dog: We have a “polite walk time” and a “sniff walk time”. I tend to do the sniff walk first because Corbin is older and needs to check his pee-mail before engaging in anything else. After a short “sniff walk”, he is more than happy to do his “polite walk”. For younger dogs that are just starting to learn, sniffing is rewarding! So use it to your advantage in training: let’s walk politely for a few minutes and use a release word like “go sniff” to reward the polite walk.

Read this:
These books have been invaluable to me in my journey to better understand dogs, and I still have a million more to read. I have read these four several times and there’s always something new to learn that I somehow missed before. I highly recommend you read them or listen to them as audiobooks, either way, they will likely change the way you look at dogs (and animals in general). I can venture out to say, that these books have made me a better person because of the patience and understanding they have taught me, and not to mention, they have made us better at our job (photographing animals), at my volunteer work for our local shelter and enriched our personal relationship with our own dogs and cats.

Animals in Transslation by Temple Grandin    |    For the Love of a Dog by Patricia McConnell    |    Dog Sense by John Bradshaw    |    Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz


Know how much you know:
Answer the following true or false questions and (without cheating!) scroll to the bottom of the blog post to see the answers and score yourself. If you answered more than 8 right: yay! you probably already know a bunch of stuff I’ll be sharing but I’d love for you to keep reading. If you got less than 5 right: stick around, read, learn and share (and no shame allowed, we all start somewhere).

1. A tail wag always means my dog is happy/excited.

2. An aggressive dog will always give a warning (like a growl) before attacking.

3. Most dogs actually don’t like to be hugged.

4. Little dogs are less likely to cause any harm to people and/or other dogs than large ones.

5. It’s not ok to let my dog approach others on or off-leash without the other person’s permission, even though he is friendly.

6. Fear in a dog can cause him to be aggressive.

7. Dog parks are the best invention since sliced bread and every dog should get to enjoy them.

8. One of the best ways to approach a dog is to let the dog do the approaching.

9: Even the friendliest family dog regardless of breed and size is capable of biting, and the likliest victim is a child.

10: Pure-bred dogs have less behavior problems than mixed breed dogs.


How did you score? Did some of the answers surprise you? This is just the tip of the iceberg, and we have so much more to learn. I hope this has tickled your curiosity to learn more and don’t miss our second part in the series Space:The Forgotten Frontier.



1. False. There are different tail wags that mean something, and they are not always “happy” meanings. Stay tuned for our post on Body Language, your dictionary to Dog Speak and a must-read.

2. False. It can depend on the individual and the breed history. Rottweilers for example are notorious for giving little to no warning before acting.

3. True! Sorry National Hug Your Dog Day, a hug, to most dogs is an invasive and restrictive action, and although some dogs, like Labs, don’t mind it too much, it is not your typical dog’s favorite show of affection.

4. False. Know what they say about chili peppers? Something similar applies to dogs. Smaller in size, does not mean less capable… or spicy.

5. True! Even though your dog is friendly and loves to say hi, the other dog might not be so comfortable, or they might be sick or be training. It is courteous, it is responsible and it is safe. Always ask first, and don’t take offense if the answer is no. It is not personal, it is for everyone’s safety. Don’t miss our post Space:The Forgotten Frontier by Jessica Dolce, author behind the popular blog Notes from a Dog Walker and the woman behind the DINOS: Dogs In Need Of Space movement.

6. True. There is something called fear aggression and a lot of insecure dogs react to what scares them by trying to make it go away. What do you do when you are scared to wit’s end? Humans (bless us) have the capability to rationalize our fears and try to control them. Dogs can’t. It’s an instinct, primal and embedded. Fight, or flight.

7. False. Although a well-designed dog park with responsible patrons can be a scene from Dogtopia and be very beneficial to get dogs into some fun play and exercise, the latter can prove to be disastrous and cause more harm than good for some dogs. The dog park, sort of like the local bar or night club, can be enjoyed by many, but not all and that is ok. Don’t miss this great article on dog parks by Trish King, author of the great book Parenting Your Dog.

8. True. Approaching a dog the same way we approach a person (walking directly toward them, looking into their eyes, and gving a handshake or a hug) can seem natural to us but in Dog Speak, many if not all of these moves are considered forward and threatening. Don’t miss our upcoming post on Body Language for tips on propper introductions.

9. True. We like to generalize and stereotype, it’s safe, clear and simple. But would you believe me if I told you that a surprising number of the bites reported in the U.S. come from some of the most popular family dog breeds, large and small? Any dog is capable of biting, they all come with the equipment to do it. Never forget that.

10. False. Behavior problems can occur in any dog, even top-of-the-line specimens from AKC champions. It depends on history and socializations, but also on genetics. When we breed for form (looks), function doesn’t always follow (temperament).


  1. David K
    May 25, 2012

    I agree with you about the dog “sniff-walk” v. the dog “polite walk.” I signal the difference to my dog, Buddy, using his leash-length: Long leash fully out means he can wander and sniff, while keeping him at short leash-length means “this is a serious, polite walk and you should be at my side.” He understands perfectly.

    (BTW, there’s a weird coding error in your blog that disallows highlighting/copying any text. The page doesn’t load correctly in Safari or Chrome on Mac OS X. Also, this comment won’t post to FB.)

    • Nat and Bill
      May 28, 2012

      Thanks for sharing David! And thank you for alerting me to the glitch, I’ll have a look at it and have it fixed soon. The code that disallows highlighting/copying is there to protect (or try to protect) from plagiarism, too much of that going on unfortunately : P but I’ll have the other stuff looked at.