How to "Read" Your Puppy

Lost in Translation


Dogs may not have the same vocabulary that humans use to communicate, but they do have their own rich and elegant language of communication that uses sound, sight, and smell to convey their intentions and emotions. To establish a good relationship with your puppy it is essential for you to develop an understanding of your dog’s particular way of communicating its language.


The expression "reading your dog" is really apt when it comes to fully comprehending your dog’s state of mind so that you are not left to conjecture. If you read your dog correctly by observing its many forms of body language, you will avoid the unintentional harm that can occur in your relationship with your dog, as happens when a dog’s moods or intentions are misinterpreted.


Dominance and Authority


As an example, many first-time puppy owners complain when a puppy runs to its mistress (or master) and greets them excitedly while peeing on the floor. Known as submissive urination, this common behavior in puppies stems from the care their mothers gave them by rolling them over and licking their genitals and anus when the pups relieved themselves.


As the puppies grow and mature, this behavior becomes a reflexive sign of accepting authority. This is also often seen in the way a young pup greets an older and more dominant dog: the pup will crouch low with a wagging tail between its legs while licking the elder's muzzle and leaving a few drops of urine on the ground. The older dog does not punish the pup, since the pup is exhibiting an expression of submission. The action is graciously received by the older dog as it puts on a dominant composure, standing erect with its tail held high. The older dog “gets” the pups behavior.


In contrast, many dog owners do not “get it,” instead viewing the behavior as a disorder or house­breaking problem. Take, for example, the owner who returns home to his excitable puppy. The young dog greets him at the door, tail low but obviously overjoyed to see his human companion. A puddle appears under the dog and the owner responds by reprimanding the dog with a smack on the nose or backside, rubbing the nose in the soiled spot and giving verbal commands like, “No, bad dog, outside!”  The owner does not “get” why the puppy continues this behavior day after day. He misinterpreted his pup’s submissive urination behavior as neu­rotic or cowardly, believing that the only way to cure the behavior is through fear; i.e., intense scolding and spankings.


This response, in turn, sets the stage for more serious and longer lasting behavioral problems. Punishment is the worst response for this behavior, since as the dog understands it, the owner is sending the message that the dog needs to be more submissive. The dog will respond by urinating more often rather than less.  


It is bound to be frustrating if you continue to expect your dog to be able to communicate with you on your level. Rather, it is better for you to understand your dog. You can do this by learning more about the typical and normal ways in which dogs express themselves to each other so that you will know the appropriate ways to behave as the dominant dog, or pack leader -- which is how you want your dog to see you. 


And because each dog is slightly different from another, you will also need to observe your own dog’s particular behaviors, body movements and characteristics in order to learn how to read your dog and understand its intentions correctly, from its own individual perspective. Of course, this will engage you in different manner of thoughts.



Puppy Point of View


“Inseeing” is a term used by some trainers to describe seeing from your dog’s point of view. It does not refer to the anthropomorphizing of pets -- the romantic human notion that our domestic animals feel and think in the same way that we do, projecting our human characteristics onto our pets’ behavior. Animals have their own ways of thinking and feeling, and to live with them successfully, it is helpful to consider this, and to consider all aspects of your dog as you observe it -- its eyes, ears, mouth, body and tail.


Try this imaginative activity. Step into your young puppy’s life, imagining yourself in her place, looking out through her eyes. Do not include verbal communication in your imagining yet. Now look to the (real) human that is closest to you. Try to interpret the human’s body language using the natural abilities a dog possesses. What feelings are you "reading"? How should you respond? Should you look straight into the human’s eyes, or would that be interpreted by the human as a challenge? Observe the human’s face and body. Which posture is sending a message of dominance? Which is invit­ing?


Now listen to the voice. As much as possible, try to focus only on the emotions of the language, not to the meaning of the words – remember, dogs have a limited understanding of human language, they depend almost solely on context and the feeling in the voice. Consider the tone of the voice. Is it cheerful? Is it harsh and abrupt? Do you hear whining sounds beneath the words or are they spoken with confidence?


Next, lower yourself physically to the vantage point of your dog. Scout around the room, observing what you see. Note the shoes at the door, the potted plants, the comfy furniture, the chewy electrical cords; from the eye level of a puppy, which of these temptations would prove to be irresistible to you?  


This "pup's-eye-view" activity can help you to understand your puppy a little better so that you can tailor your response to his “bad” behavior. By interpreting the dog’s behavior in a more realistic way and being actively engaged in helping him to avoid the things that will get him into trouble with you, you will be making major headway in the appropriate training of your dog.


As you understand your dog’s behavior better, you will also be better able to estimate your dog’s capabilities for understanding commands. Keep in mind that almost all puppies are not going to be capable of learning everything you need them to know all at once, but will learn with repetition, consistency, patience, and realistic rewards, such as affection and small training treats.


Image: Tambako the Jaguar / via Flickr