Canine Communication - The Neutral State
Whilst dog behaviour and communication are universal there is also a need for every dog to learn competent communication from litter mates, their mother and from their first home when they get to it.
If there is a gap in learning, for example if they are isolated away from other dogs altogether between eight weeks and twelve weeks, they will often not learn effective and respectful communication. Or if a puppy tries hard to show he is uncomfortable over and over again early in his life and is ignored, that puppy might stop trying to communicate how they feel, or they might even become more overt by growling and biting. These learning experiences all affect who a dog is. If you have ever experienced a dog who is socially awkward, rude or seemingly bad-mannered dog it’s because they haven’t learned to use their natural communication skills properly.
The good news is that we can undo most of the flawed language that any dog has learned, by teaching them that we listen to them and respect their needs. So, if you live with a dog who is struggling with their world, your priority needs to be observation and understanding of their needs and how they are trying to communicate them. In most cases if your dog starts to realise you are “listening” to their attempts to “speak” or watching them to ensure you are keeping them safe and respecting how they feel, they will begin to grow confidence in their attempts to communicate and show you how they feel.
General canine communication is one of the most fascinating things in the world. Everything from eye shape to whisker position tells us something. Dogs use signals to bring us closer, signals to attempt to send us away, they go through a complex process when they are worried and even a slight change in their eye shape or tail position can tell us volumes.
To summarise the general communication of our dogs, they get softer and looser when they are happy and relaxed. They get stiffer and more tense when they are concerned. This occurs from the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail. The entire dog follows the pattern, so a tense dog will have tension around their lips, eyes, forehead and down their spine to their tail. The happy and relaxed dog will have little to no tension. Everything will be neutral to relaxed. Their eyes and body will be soft.
To find your own dog’s emotional state through how they look, you will first need to assess them when they are in a neutral state. A neutral state is seen when a dog is experiencing no strong emotion one way or another. Everything from the nose to the tail is just there when your dog is in a neutral state. Having a knowledge of how their breed is supposed to look will help with this, as will observing your dog.
Neutral positioning is a critical knowledge when we live with dogs. It’s so crucial because it enables us to understand when they are going through an emotional change. When our dogs are not listened to, they can be put into situations they can’t cope with.
A perfect example is the dog who bites someone in their human family. Most often if this happens the dog has given so many warnings and delivered so many requests for space – which have not been noticed or recognised, that they have felt they had no other choice than to bite. It’s similar to a situation where we might be forced into the company of someone who can’t listen and doesn’t let us talk until we begin to feel oppressed by them. Eventually we either leave and hope to never see them again or we snap and tell them off to achieve our aim of getting them away from us, or if that’s not possible at least stopping their behaviour because it’s making us so uncomfortable. Dogs do the same, but they can’t use words, so they use signals.
Our job is to recognise those signals.
Check out my illustrated book on canine communication called Canine Communication The Language Of A Species at Amazon.