If you think about it, humans owe their place at the top of the animal kingdom to two evolutionary tools: fire and dogs.
As anyone who’s been subjected to their mother-in-law’s cooking well knows, digesting undercooked meat takes a toll on the body. All joking aside, the advent of using fire to cook meat allowed early humans to digest their proteins more easily, freeing up vital biological resources for more important stuff, like brain growth.
That makes sense. But dogs? Yeah. Dogs!
Archaeologists, historians, and anthropologists largely agree that mankind first started interacting with dogs by earning the trust of wild wolves. While most of these proto-pups were probably very aggressive towards humans and fearful of fire, a select few were brave/curious/hungry enough to trot over to the outskirts of a campfire and eat scraps (the irresistible compulsion of humans to treat dogs to table scraps being a vestigial evolutionary trait of our own species!).
With time, man and wolf bonded over cooked meats, and slowly but surely the wild wolf was bred and domesticated to form the hereditary foundation for our modern four-legged friends. Given that dogs have been at our side for literally thousands of years, it’s no wonder dogs are so adept at reading human social cues such as pointing commands (something not even chimpanzees can comprehend!). But, for all the skilled communication skills your doggo comes pre-programmed with, are you holding up your end of the bargain?
It’s a given that most loving dog owners fancy themselves their pup’s best friend. And while that’s probably true, there may be more we can do to help improve communication with our good boys and girls. Here are some tips for improving your ability to communicate with your dog.
1.) My neck, my back...
Yeah—just like that. Did you know that while our collective societal impression of dogs is that they enjoy being “patted” on the head, animal behavioralists disagree? According to experts, while a dog will typically respond positively to her owners touch anywhere on the body, dogs seem to prefer being rubbed on their shoulders, neck, and behind their ears.
2.) Are you listening to me?
A dog’s ears signal a lot about its stress levels. Rather than being an indicator of a dog willfully ignoring his owner, ears laid back against a dog’s head is usually a sign of stress or submission. Whether that means your dog is feeling under the weather, is agitated, or is in a submissive state, you should take this as a sign that something could be bothering them.
3.) Staring Contest
Eye contact carries a lot of significance in the canine world. When it comes to familiar pups, a dog’s willingness to make and break eye contact is a sign of trust and respect for his owner. From an evolutionary standpoint, eye contact can be seen as a challenge by an aggressor. This is why some unfamiliar dogs refuse to make eye contact, or making eye contact with a strange dog can spark an aggressive response. Why is this? Well, in the wild dogs don’t try on eye contact to convey complex emotions like we humans do. But, because dogs are resilient creatures who are specifically adapted to living amongst humans, they’ve developed the ability to use eye contact as a form of communication over time.
4.) Get on My Level
Which brings us to our next point... When it comes to a familiar dog, experts believe you can improve communication by “getting down” to their level. This is, of course, NOT advisable when it comes to strange dogs or dogs with aggressive tendencies, as your actions may be perceived as a sign of aggression.
5.) Easy Sneezy
Strange as it may sound, dogs deliberately sneeze and snort to signal that “roughhousing” and “play fighting” is just that—all in good fun. According to animal behaviorists, if you’ve ever heard your dog sneezing and snorting while romping around with you or another dog it’s likely an indicator that they view the interaction as playful. So, if you ever want to draw odd stares from your partner while also letting your pup know it’s playtime, start snorting!
6.) Walk This Way
It makes sense that non-verbal species have evolved a complex set of physical cues to communicate with the world around them. One way that dogs signal friendly intentions on approach is by walking up to their subject in an arc. In nature, predators often take a straight line in attacking their prey, as this is the most efficient means of hunting. Dogs have developed the custom of approaching subjects in a roundabout way when seeking to signal good intent.
7.) My dog totally smiles at me. Right?
No, probably not. Well, not exactly at least... While it’s true that there’s nothing more rewarding than seeing your doggo’s lips part to reveal their pearly whites in an apparent grin, they’re probably just excited. Although happiness and excitement often go hand-in-hand, animal experts believe that dog “smiles” are an involuntary expression in response to exciting stimuli—like food, or squirrels!
And there you have it—a few tips to help you get a better read on your dog and hopefully improve communications with them. Now, go fetch!