When I was young I was taught the basics, like I am sure many of us were. A wagging tail, a happy dog. Tail tucked is a scared dog. A growl, an unhappy dog, stay away.
As I learned more about canine communication I soon realized a wagging tail doesn’t always mean a happy dog and learning dog language is as complex as any other language.
You get to the point of knowing a flick of the tongue, a yawn, a turn of the head can be a sign of stress. Some believe that they can even be conscious calming signals.
You start reading books, doing courses, speaking to experienced professionals, many stating that if a dog does a certain thing in a certain context it means this or that.
But what about a dog that licks its lips and yawns when initiating a cuddle? What about a dog that lies on their back, relaxed body language, tongue lolling out, pawing at you for stroke but then growls when you touch them?
People often show photos, a snapshot of life, and then state what the dog is feeling. Have you ever seen a photo of yourself and thought, shit I look really angry but I know I was really happy at that moment?
I don’t even know exactly how my human friends or family are feeling. How often have you said something in a tone that has been taken the wrong way or taken offense at something that wasn’t meant to be offensive?
Do all dogs have great communication skills or do some get it wrong? Are some dogs better communicators than others?
I see many adolescents missing communication from other dogs and then seeing their communication skills get better as they get older.
There are times, with dogs, that I have no doubt how they are feeling, to a point. I know they are scared or happy. But, I will never know exactly how they feel. There will always be times I get it wrong. No person on the planet speaks fluent dog. None of us even speak fluent human.
One of my favorite photos of me and my previous 3 dogs could be said to show some stressed dogs. Spatula tongue, panting, tension around the jaw, even slightly wide eyes, all things that could suggest they were stressed and unhappy. They had actually all just been put on leads so the local cows could have a drink in peace. They had been running around, sniffing and foraging in the beautiful mountains. They were out of breath and a little hot but very happy.
The basics of understanding body language are so important, but being able to put those things into context is crucial. My boy Harry pushes his head into me and wants a cuddle. As he does this he yawns and flicks his tongue. I could see this as him feeling stressed and conflicted about being touched, but due to observing him, I believe it’s all the stress leaving his body as he gets a much-needed cuddle. He soon stops licking his lips and yawning and his body goes to jelly as he comes in for a snuggle.
My boy Toby can look relaxed and want a belly rub but if he doesn’t know you he can sometimes snap when you touch him. Over time we believe this to be a pain issue. He wants contact but feels vulnerable due to pain.
You can’t fit emotions and feelings into neat little boxes. All we can do is keep watching learning and constantly questioning. If we spent less time judging and more time observing we’d all become a little more dog fluent.