There is a border collie in Austria named Betsy who has a vocabulary equivalent to a toddler. So far she understands 340 words, and from a young puppy started picking up on names of items such as ball, rope, paper, box and keys.
Say the word and she will and retrieve it for you. She also knows 15 people by name and can link photographs with objects they represent. So if you show her a picture of your shoe she will drop it at your feet in no time.
Although dogs have picked up on human language and know exactly what “walkies” is when you say it, they also have a complex canine language all of their own.
A world of smell
Dogs can pick up all kinds of information about each other through their anal glands and urine. This is why they sniff each other’s butts upon meeting and run from tree to tree to smell who was there before them. Urine contains sex hormones and leaves information about the reproductive condition of a female, and the power and authority of a male. This is why a male dog will cock his leg against poles and trees (this plants the scent at nose level), and why both male and female dogs often scratch up the earth after relieving themselves – this helps spread the scent.
Female dogs will often have a strong scent that is very appealing to male dogs up to 10 days before they ovulate. It’s a false message to attract the boys. Male suitors will often fight over her and she will be more inclined to mate with the strongest and fittest when she actually is receptive to the deed.
Female dogs can distinguish the vocal differences in her puppies shortly after birth. She tells each one apart by how they whimper or whine. She will instantly know when a puppy is hungry, in pain or having fun, and which one of her litter it is; even with her eyes closed.
Domestic dogs are far more vocal than their wolf ancestors and communicate very effectively in this way. Wolves have different harmonic howls and researchers have distinguished a number of them, ranging from a loneliness howl to “pass on the alarm howl” and “where are you howl.” Our pet dogs have gone one step further and many owners speak about a distinctive “hello” moan or howl when they arrive home, the “I’m hungry” whimper and, of course, the “SOMEBODY IS AT OUR DOOR” bark.
Dogs have even learned how to talk in ways to humans that they never do to other dogs. For instance, they sometimes mix a moan with an infantile high-pitched whimper. This is a learned behaviour that they know is a marvellous way to get attention.
Windows to the soul
Dogs reveal their emotional state through the position of their ears, mouth, face, tail, hair, posture and body position. Emotions are often accurately identified from body signals, but not always. Some breeds are more secretive. For example, Rottweilers are poor body signallers. They can move from being happy to angry without revealing any change in their posture.
People have often remarked that their dog’s eyes speak volumes, and this is true. Eye contact is an important means of communicating in the dog world. Apart from obvious affection, dominant dogs will often stare down submissive ones, and the weaker individuals will avoid eye contact and expose their necks. This is also a good way to discern the mood of a dog you are approaching.
Here are some other body language cues to help you identify what your dog is trying to tell you:
- Calm – ears and tail relaxed
- Alert – ears and tail up
- Aggressive – hackles up, tail up, rump up, lips pulled back
- Very aggressive – snarl with teeth exposed, straight stance
- Frightened – ears flattened back, tail between the legs (if you approach past a fearful dog’s critical distance he/she may snap at you out of fear – so respect this distance if you know a dog is scared).
- Fear – crouched with tail between the legs
- Submission – lying down, hind leg lifted, urinates
- Greet – licks face, play bow….and of course….a wagging tail 🙂
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