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How to Speak Dog

Mastering the Art of Dog-Human Communication
By Stanley Coren

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: Conversations with Canines

The argument was very sound,

And coming from a master's mouth

Would have been lauded for its truth.

But since the author was a hound,

Its merit went unrecognized.


-- Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695)

"The Farmer, the Dog, and the Fox"

It is probably the case that virtually every human being has, at one time or another, wanted to be Dr. Dolittle, or to own King Solomon's ring, so that he or she could understand and talk with animals. For me, the animals that I most wanted to speak to were dogs. I remember one Sunday evening, I was sitting on the living-room floor in front of the big family radio with my beagle, Skippy. I was leaning against the side of an overstuffed chair waiting for a regularly scheduled radio show featuring my favorite movie star. The theme music started -- I think it was actually the folk tune "Green Sleeves" -- and then a few moments later I could hear her voice. She was barking in the distance and coming closer every second...

Long before our current wave of canine movie stars, such as Benji and Beethoven, and their television counterparts, Eddie, Wishbone, and the Littlest Hobo, there was Lassie. She was much more than a dog; she was a friend and devoted companion. She was a guardian of the right, a courageous protector, and a fearless fighter.

The dog that may have done the most to shape the popular conception of dogs and their intelligence was a character born in a short story published in the Saturday Evening Post by Eric Knight in 1938. The story was so well received that Knight later expanded it into a best-selling book in 1940, and in 1943, it was translated into a heartwarming tearjerker of a movie called Lassie Come Home. It was filmed in rich colors and set in Britain, where Lassie's poor family is forced by their financial troubles to sell their faithful collie to a wealthy dog fancier (whose daughter is played by a very young Elizabeth Taylor). Lassie escapes from the Duke of Rudling's harsh kennel keeper and manages to work her way from Scotland to England to get home to her young master (who is played by Roddy McDowall). The role of Lassie was not portrayed by a lovely female dog at all, but by a male dog named Pal. In fact, all of the Lassies ever since have been female impersonators. Male collies were preferred to play the part, since they are larger and less timid than female collies. More important, when an unspayed female dog goes into heat (which they do twice a year), she often loses much of her coat. It would be very distressing to movie watchers, and it would be a film editor's nightmare, to have the fullness of Lassie's coat vary from one scene to another.

Gender issues aside, Lassie had a huge impact on our concept of how dogs think and act. This was partly due to the volume of material about her that we were exposed to. So far there have been ten feature films showing her exploits. In these Lassie managed to upstage some of the greatest stars in Hollywood, including James Stewart, Helen Slater, Nigel Bruce, Elsa Lanchester, Frederic Forrest, Mickey Rooney, and many others. There was also a TV show which ran from 1954 through to 1991 (with a few interruptions), using six different settings and rotations of cast. At times, Lassie's families included such familiar actors as Cloris Leachman and June Lockhart. Many of these episodes are still appearing on television in syndicated reruns today. There was even a Lassie cartoon series (Lassie's Rescue Rangers) that played on Saturday morning TV for the kids.

Perhaps Lassie's most unusual starring role was in a radio series, which ran from 1947 through 1950, and I was one of her young fans. I'll bet that given the media mentality of today, producers of a radio series involving a dog might argue that it was necessary to give Lassie a human voice, so that we could hear her thoughts and know what she wanted to say. It would be a soft female voice, of indeterminate age, perhaps with a slight Scottish accent to remind us of her origin. These early radio episodes, however, were true to the character of Lassie on the screen. She never spoke human language, she barked. It is interesting to note that Pal actually did the barking on the radio show; however, the whining, panting, snarling, and growling were all convincingly done by human actors.

One part of the magic of the show was that Lassie did not have to speak in English, Spanish, German, French, or any other human tongue. Her family and everybody who heard her understood her completely. An episode might typically go like this.

Lassie runs out into the field, barking and whimpering frantically.

Her young master asks, "What's wrong, girl?" and Lassie barks.

"There's something wrong with Mom?" he interprets, and Lassie barks and whimpers.

"Oh no -- she's hurt herself! Dad told her not to use that machine by herself. You go get Dr. Williams. I saw him stopping by the Johnson place just a little bit down the road. I'll go back to see if I can help."

The boy runs across the field toward home. Lassie barks and races off for help. The doctor will, of course, understand every bark and whine and come to the rescue as well.

In other episodes and at other times, Lassie's barks tell of bad men coming, of hidden or stolen goods, or alerts her master that someone is either lying or speaking the truth. It seems that Lassie speaks a universal speech. There is one episode with a boy from France, who comes to live with his uncle after his family dies tragically. This poor child speaks no English. Fortunately, he doesn't have to. Lassie speaks the universal language of dogs (let's call it "Doggish"). He, of course, understands it immediately, since apparently all French dogs use the same language. Because of this, Lassie is able to tell him (with more barks, whimpers, whines, and an occasional muted growl) that he has come to a place where people want to be his friends, although there is one bad boy he should watch out for. Lassie comforts him, integrates him into the community, settles some misunderstandings between him and the local children, and then teaches him his first few words of English, which are, of course, "Lassie, you are a good dog!"

I really felt jealous of Lassie's family and neighbors. They could all understand the language of dogs, and they knew how to make their own dog understand exactly what they were saying as well. I fondled Skippy's long, leathery ears and wondered why I was so linguistically inept.

It's not that I couldn't understand anything that Skippy was trying to tell me. When his tail wagged, I knew that he was happy. When his tail was tucked under his belly, I knew that he was feeling poorly. When he barked, I knew that someone was coming, or that he wanted to eat, or that he wanted to play, or that he was excited... Well, he barked a lot. When he bayed (that little yodeling sound that beagles make), I knew that he was happily tracking something. The linguistic failings were not Skippy's, they were mine. Sometimes my dog would be incredibly innovative in telling me what he wanted. There was the day he deliberately pushed his water dish across the kitchen floor until it banged against my shoe, just to tell me that he was thirsty and the bowl was empty. Still, most of the time I just couldn't understand what he was saying and our lack of communication made me very sad. Now, after many years of research and study, I think I am beginning to understand the language of my canine friends. As a psychologist, I have also come to realize how an understanding of dog communication can affect human-dog relationships.

In humans, language often appears to be the single most important element in determining successful social relationships and general adjustment. When you look at the research on the relationship between children with disabilities and their families, you find that love and affection can be fostered and maintained even though the child suffers from massive problems, as long as the child can speak and understand language at a useful level. The families of children who have many fewer difficulties, but whose language ability is impaired, report more severe social and adjustment problems, and seem to feel less affection and more frustration with the child. Similarly, several studies have shown that the single most important factor in determining whether an immigrant or refugee will integrate well into their new society is the speed and proficiency with which they learn the language of their new country. In much the same way, a human's ability to understand the language of the dog can determine how well the dog is accepted into the family.

Misreading a dog's emotional state can be distressing for its human family, and can even be fatal for the dog. Consider the case of Finnigan, a beautiful Irish setter from a kennel run by a woman named Melanie. I knew Melanie as a careful breeder, whose conscientiousness had allowed her to create a line of dogs that were not only physically handsome but also warm, playful, and tolerant. With that in mind, you can imagine Melanie's distress when she received a phone call from the family that had bought Finnigan. They complained that he was too aggressive. They said he was leaping and snarling at visitors and other dogs. When these problems arose, the family had called in a trainer, but he had found the dog difficult to handle and failed to eliminate these aggressive displays. In the end, he had recommended that the dog be euthanized. The family didn't want to do this, but felt they couldn't keep him under the circumstances. Melanie offered a refund of the purchase price and asked that the dog be sent back to her.

Then she called me up. "I've never really had to deal with an aggressive dog before," she said. "I was wondering if you could be with me when I go to pick him up -- just in case there's something I can't handle."

I couldn't imagine one of her dogs being aggressive, but the worry in her voice was such that I agreed. I was there to help pick Finnigan up. I had brought with me the usual accoutrements for dealing with virtually any type of aggressive dog. There were a couple of strong leashes, a slip collar, a head halter, a muzzle, and even a large heavy blanket in case the dog had to be physically restrained by wrapping him so that some of this control equipment could be applied. In addition, I brought a pair of heavy leather gloves (which have literally saved my skin a few times).

When the truck carrying Finnigan arrived, I bent down to look into the front of his tan plastic carrying kennel. No snarls, no growls, just an excited whimper. Still, caution seemed like the best plan, so we opened the door slowly. Out leapt this happy red dog, who looked around, trying to discern where he was. Then, in a response that was clearly triggered by the unfamiliar surroundings of the loading dock, he showed every tooth in that large mouth of his.

0 My response was involuntary, but I think that I upset Melanie when I began to laugh. I realize that to a person who doesn't understand the language of dogs, this flash of forty-two long white teeth could easily have been interpreted as an aggressive display. However, there are different ways that a dog can show its teeth, and the expression Finnigan was wearing was actually a submissive and pacifying grin. This expression did not mean, "Back off or I'll bite," but rather, "It's okay. I'm not a threat. I understand that you're the boss around here."

The young setter's bounciness did cause him to leap at people and other dogs. But this leaping was done as part of a greeting. He simply wanted to touch noses with those tall two-footed dogs that we call humans, and the only way to reach their nose was to jump up. To ensure that this would not be viewed as a threat, he did it with a submissive grimace. The more he was corrected by the family and trainers for his "aggression," the more submissive he became. The more submissive he was feeling, the wider he "smiled," reasoning that they had simply missed his signal and he truly wanted to pacify the situation. Of course, the wider he "smiled," the more teeth he showed.

Finnigan's first family simply didn't understand what the dog was trying to say; had they followed the advice they were given, they might have put this handsome red dog into an early grave. Finnigan now lives happily with a new family. Melanie tells me that he still smiles and jumps a bit, but she has explained what this means to his new masters. Because they understand his message, they know that he is safe to love.

Unfortunately, mistranslation of the signals that a dog is giving is quite common and can lead to serious problems and bad feelings. A woman named Eleanor came to me with a problem. It involved Weedels, a blond American cocker spaniel, who, according to her mistress, was "driving my husband crazy. She simply refuses to be housebroken, and is now making puddles simply out of spite. Stephen [her husband] says if we can't solve this problem quickly, we'll have to get rid of her."

The period of time while a puppy is learning to be clean in the house is often stressful. It is usually solved within a few weeks, however, if care is taken to regulate the dog's food and water intake, and the owner is alert to the times when the dog should be taken out to empty its bladder and bowels. In this case, Weedels was nearly seven months old, which seemed a bit old not to be housebroken. So I asked what they had done to train her.

"Stephen likes things in the house to be neat and clean, so it was important that we housebreak Weedels early. I read one of those books on puppies and followed its advice, and we got her to make her stool outside. But we still occasionally had 'wet accidents.' Stephen said I was being too easy on Weedels and he would solve the problem. When he found a place where she'd wet the floor, he dragged her over and rubbed her nose in it. Then he yelled at her and gave her a slap on the rear when he put her outside.

"Stephen went away on a sales trip and was gone for nearly four weeks. During that time, Weedels was fine. Maybe there were one or two accidents, but that was all, and I just cleaned it up and put her out in the yard without a whole lot of fuss. The last two weeks, things were absolutely clean. Then, just a few days ago, Stephen came back and everything fell apart. You wouldn't believe what this dog did. The moment Stephen walked into the house, she peed on the floor right in front of him. He got so angry I thought he was really going to hurt her. Weedels just seems to want to annoy him. Whenever Stephen walks into the room, she crouches way down low and makes a puddle in front of him just for spite. Yesterday was the last straw. Stephen walked into the room and Weedels rolled on her back, like dogs sometimes do for a belly rub. When he bent over her, she tried to pee right into his face! That's why I'm here today."

My heart went out immediately to poor Weedels. Dogs do not communicate by using the same signals that humans do. In this case, Weedels was giving a clear message in the only language that she knew. Unfortunately, there were no translators around, so her plea for understanding was being misread and getting her into trouble. Her problem had nothing to do with housebreaking. From my conversation with Eleanor, I knew that Weedels was almost completely housebroken by now. The problem had to do with her husband, Stephen. In his early interactions with Weedels over her urinating on the floor, he was particularly harsh in his corrections. This caused Weedels to become quite fearful of him. If a dog is experiencing a large amount of social fear, it will try to make itself appear to be as small, insignificant, and non-threatening as possible. Crouching low to the ground or rolling over onto its back are part of this pattern.

What Eleanor thought was a spiteful attempt to urinate on her husband's face was simply the release of urine from a dog who was rolling into a very submissive and frightened position. The urine was designed to remind the "dominant dog" of puppy behaviors. Puppies need to be cleaned of urine and feces when they are small, and the mother usually simply rolls them on their backs to do this. Thus, Weedels was really trying her best to say, "You frighten me, but look, I'm no threat. I'm nothing more significant than a helpless puppy." Once Weedel's message was translated for Eleanor, the situation became much clearer. Now her task was to try to build Weedels's confidence. A larger problem might be trying to get her husband to be gentler and less threatening around the dog.

Many common canine messages can be misinterpreted. A woman named Josephine once asked me to help her with a problem she was having with her dog.

"Bluto is acting far too affectionately toward me and it bothers me and upsets my husband. He originally got Bluto as a guard dog and he doesn't want him acting like a wimp, even around the family," she told me over the phone.

Bluto turned out to be a large, dark Rottweiler, who had been named after the big, bad, ugly cartoon character who was always fighting with Popeye the Sailorman. The name, which had been given by Josephine's husband, Vincent, told me something about the man and his expectations for the dog. Vincent was a forceful trainer, and had often used fairly harsh methods to enforce his will over Bluto. The dog obeyed him, although sometimes with apparent reluctance. According to Josephine, Bluto didn't obey her at all, but did show extreme and persistent signs of affection toward her.

When I arrived at their home, Vincent was at work and Josephine brought me into her living room. I sat on a chair and looked across at her, sitting primly near one end of the sofa with Bluto beside her on the floor. Bluto appeared to be around 120 pounds of hard muscle, while Josephine appeared to be around 100 pounds, very slight, and not particularly athletic. As we talked, Bluto placed his paw on her knee, and she immediately responded by stroking his head. After a few moments, Bluto jumped up onto the sofa beside her, and Josephine moved slightly to one side to accommodate his great bulk. He sat there, looking occasionally at me, and then staring at her. When he looked directly into her eyes, she would reach her hand up and lightly stroke the side of his face.

Next, Bluto leaned his weight against the small woman. After a few moments, she shifted to the side to be free of the pressure of the heavy dog. He reacted by shifting his position so that he was again sitting beside her and once more leaning against her. Again, she moved away a few inches and again the dog moved closer. As we spoke, this spectacle continued until Josephine had been forced all the way to the far end of the sofa. At the point where she could no longer move any farther, she stood up in exasperation and pointed at the dog.

"This is exactly what I mean. He's always asking for attention by pawing at me. He's always staring into my eyes and leaning against me to show me how much he loves me. I can't even watch a television show without him pushing me off the sofa unless Vince is here. I don't want to hurt his feelings, but he's a big dog. That kind of continuous affection from such a large animal is annoying and disturbs my husband. Is there some way we could train him to be less dependent and more confident and independent?"

Once again, a message had been sent by a dog and misinterpreted by the human receiver. Bluto was not telling Josephine, "I love you. I need you. I'm totally dependent upon your affection," which was the translation she and her husband were giving to these signals. Instead, Bluto was saying, "I am higher status than you are. When the leader of the pack [Vincent] is away, then I'm in charge, and you will give way to me and respond to my needs."

The signs of dominance were all quite readable. A dog who puts his paw on a human's knee is often expressing dominance over that human, in the same way that a wolf will put his paw or head over the shoulder of another wolf to demonstrate that he is of higher status. Bluto's staring directly into Josephine's eyes is a classic dominance and threat gesture, designed to produce pacifying responses in other pack members. Josephine was accepting his dominance by stroking the side of his face, in the same way that a wolf of lower dominance might lick the face of a higher-status dog. Finally, his leaning behavior was designed to make the small woman give way. Pack leaders can occupy any part of the territory they desire and can sit or sleep where they want to. Lower-ranking members of the pack move away to permit this, thus accepting the other animal's dominance. In other words, everything Bluto was "saying" pointed to "I'm boss," and everything that Josephine was "saying" was "Yes, I humbly accept your authority."

Once the message became clear, the solution to the problem could easily be found. In the end, Josephine had to take Bluto to basic dog obedience classes, where he learned to follow her commands. Since she couldn't physically dominate the dog, she used treats to induce him to respond. She also became completely responsible for his feeding at home, and required him to respond to simple commands like "Sit" and "Stay," before he would be fed. In the wild, it is the leader of the pack who eats first and controls the hunt and distribution of food. By controlling food, in the form of meals and treats, and insisting upon Bluto's responding to her commands to get these, Josephine was now using a form of dog communication to tell him: "This two-footed dog is of higher status than you, even if I'm not as large or strong as you are."

In the same way that people can learn to interpret the language of dogs, there is no doubt that we humans can communicate with dogs if the person chooses to speak in their canine language. An interesting instance of this was described to me by Dr. Michael Fox, who has made his mark as one of the foremost researchers on dog and wild canine behavior. At that time, Fox was a faculty member in the Psychology Department of Washington University in St. Louis. He was doing some marvelous work comparing the behavior patterns of various wild canines such as the wolf, fox, and coyote with the behavior patterns of domestic dogs. This was the work which eventually convinced scientists that there is a universal core of behaviors common for all canines. To the extent that this is true, we can learn about our pet dog by studying the behaviors of wild wolves. Conversely, we can learn about wolves by the study of a little spaniel who might be nestled at our feet. This is a well-accepted concept today, but at the time it was still controversial.

I met Dr. Fox after a lecture he had given. When I introduced myself, I mentioned that I had seen the television documentary he had worked on called The Wolf Man. He responded immediately and took the discussion off in an unexpected direction.

"Ahhh, yes. You know that project taught me that I did know how to communicate with wolves well enough to save myself from harm, but that I didn't know enough about what the wolves were saying to avoid difficulties in the first place."

There was a tone of amusement rippling through his mildly English-accented voice. "You see, we'd just introduced some wolves to each other in the research compound, and we were hoping we could photograph their behavior. I believed we had an opportunity to get some good film of their greeting patterns and how they sorted out their dominance relationships. In any event, the oldest male and his mate (both around four years old) were down at the end of the research area with the rest of the group. It turns out that the female was in heat and was doing a lot of submissive nudging at the male. With strange wolves around in his territory, and a mate in heat, I suppose the male was getting pretty edgy about the whole thing.

"We'd been concealed behind some bushes, when this pair broke away from the others and came toward the shrubbery where we were hiding. When they passed us, I thought we could get some good pictures of them, so I rushed after them. Suddenly they reversed their direction, and I was caught in the act. Here was this human being rushing directly toward them and staring at them. At the best of times, that kind of activity [running directly forward and direct eye contact] signals a threat, so I immediately stopped moving. I thought that that would be enough to avoid any problem. But I must have still been staring directly at them in what had to be interpreted as a wide-eyed challenge. There were no further words between us -- the male simply attacked me.

"With a camera strapped to each of my wrists, there wasn't a lot that I could do, so I raised my hands in the air and shouted for the handler. [In retrospect, this was the wrong thing to do, since the elevated hands look like another attempt at asserting dominance. Doubtless this was read as equivalent to another animal rearing up to make itself seem larger. The shouting might also be misinterpreted as a bark or growl-bark.] Meanwhile, the male was biting my hand and arm and back, and the female had joined in and was attacking my legs. It was at that point that I finally had the presence of mind to remember how to tell them that this attack wasn't necessary. I froze in place and huddled down to make myself small -- all the while making whines and whimpering sounds, like a frightened and submissive wolf cub. Although they immediately broke off the attack, the male came right in front of my face, gazing directly into my eyes and snarling. I responded by averting my eyes and avoiding any eye contact while still continuing to whine. When the pair seemed to have eased off a bit, I tried to back away from them a little, but that only made them attack again. This time, though, the attack was all threats and no actual biting, which meant that the most important part of my message had gotten through.

pard"Around that time, the handler arrived, got hold of the male, and dragged him away. The female stayed with her eyes staring directly at me, as if waiting for me to make the next move. I didn't. I just stayed there, eyes half closed in submission and whimpering, until they finally got a collar on her and pulled her away.

"Fortunately, I was wearing some pretty thick clothing, so their teeth didn't break a lot of skin. On the other hand, the pressure and the shaking when they bit me caused a lot of pain and bruising, and also some muscle and tendon damage."

He laughed lightly and sipped at his drink. "One of the people who was there took some photos of the whole incident. One of those pictures shows a perfect example of a fear grimace -- only it's being displayed by a human psychologist, and not a frightened wolf."

In this case, an extremely knowledgeable and intelligent human being inadvertently gave the wrong set of signals to a canine, and this produced an attack. Fortunately for him, he knew enough about canine language to be able to convey that it was all a mistake, and that he had no intention of continuing to challenge or suggesting any further threat. This probably saved him from considerable harm.

In many respects, our ability to live successfully and happily with any dog may depend upon our competence in reading the dog's language. If a person knows how to speak "Doggish," then they can interpret what the dog is trying to say and also give unambiguous signals which the dog can translate. Unlike human languages, which have to be learned, much of the dog's language is encoded in its genes. He does have the capacity to learn to understand a lot of human language as well, which will ultimately make communication with people easier. However, before we can discuss speaking with our canine companions, it will be useful to know something about language itself.

Copyright © 2000 by Stanley Coren

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