Canine Body Language
It is often said: “if only dogs could talk”. Well, in many ways, they can. Body language is at the core of intraspecies, as well as interspecies communication.
A dog’s entire body forms part of how they communicate; from nose to tail. Some of this communication may be intentional, others unintentional – instead simply an expression of an emotional state not under the dog’s voluntary control.
Dogs have lived in close contact with humans for at least 30,000 years and as a result have developed specific skills enabling them to communicate effectively with us. A dogs’ behavioural repertoire with humans employs the same signals as used in their dog to dog communications, but certain signals may have been modified. For example, eye contact in dog-dog communications signifies threat. When a human and dog have soft eye contact with each other, oxytocin (bonding hormone) is released into both blood streams – quite a difference from a threatening gesture. Dogs appear to have come to see eye contact with humans as having a different meaning to eye contact with other dogs.
Dogs communicate through various methods:
- Visual communication – modifying different parts of their body
- Tactile communication – particularly with humans, dogs may nuzzle a humans' hand
- Auditory communication – vocalisations
- Olfactory communication – through scenting stimuli
The aim of communication is for the sender to change the behaviour and/or inner state of the receiver, by means of specific behaviour patterns or signals. Communication can be loosely segregated into distance increasing body language, or distance decreasing body language:
Distance increasing communications are those behaviours that a dog uses in order to gain more distance from another animal; such as snarling.
Distance decreasing communications are behaviours that a dog uses in order to gain less distance from another animal; such as a sweeping wag of the tail. In terms of evolution, communication is about the sender gaining some degree of advantage. For example, a dog communicating distance-increasing signals to ward off a perceived threat, or communicating possessiveness over a resource such as food. This behaviour is being demonstrated for reasons of survival.
Importantly, dogs are not capable of manipulation, or giving dishonest signals, in order to gain something. When a dog expresses an emotion it is an honest disclosure of what is going on for them internally.