Master growls and yowls of canine code

Do you talk terrier? Or speak schnauzer? Parlez-vous puppy? Communication is the key to all successful relationships and, according to researchers, our dogs are in constant dialogue with us.

But are we translating their barks, growls and yowls correctly?

According to scientists at Eotvos Lorand University in Hungary, man’s best friend calls upon a rich lexicon of sounds to convey fear and fun, aggression and pleasure, and more often than not we understand.

A new study, featuring 40 volunteers listening to different growls recorded from 18 dogs, revealed that in 63% of cases, humans were able to correctly identify whether the animal was guarding food, facing up to a threatening stranger or playing tug-of-war.

Women scored more highly than men. That’s all well and good for women, but it is not quite enough.

Not all of us are versed in canine code. How does one know the difference between a growl that means “Back off, I am defending this delicious pig’s ear from all comers” and one that says, “I see a skateboarder and I’m feeling threatened”.

When dogs misbehave the dynamic tends to be this: Otto snarls at Mabel, Mabel snaps at Otto, they both bark hysterically, the children scream at them and the parents let rip at everybody with biblical wrath. Mixed messages is the term that springs to mind. It is this erratic approach that can potentially lead to difficulties.

“I sometimes despair of the miscommunication between humans and dogs,” says Ade Howe, behaviouralist and author of  Dog Training Without Treats.

“This new research is over-simplistic, because dogs express a whole range of emotions that owners often cannot read.

“I’ve seen young dogs classed as ‘vicious’ and packed off to be put down. But when I see them, I can immediately identify that they were just very confused about the hierarchy and were nipping family members the way they would another puppy.”

According to Howe, the tone of barks and growls is crucial; the higher the pitch, the greater the excitement, while a lower timbre indicates aggression or fear.

“If you want to praise a dog, you should use a high tone,” he advises.

“To tell a dog off, you need to drop your voice and emit something short and sharp, like a bark. I use the letter ‘A’; that’s all it takes for your dog to grasp that its behaviour has resulted in a negative consequence.”

It all makes perfect sense. Most of us instinctively use a higher register when happy and a lower tone for displeasure.

But one niggling question remains: is it more important that we understand our dogs or that they understand us?

“Dogs can learn a certain amount, but they haven’t got the capability of learning our language, so we have to learn theirs,” is the verdict of Nigel Reed, a dog psychologist who teaches owners to understand their pet’s needs and whose training guide, The Dog Guardian , is published next month.

“If you don’t pick up on your dogs’ concerns – whether they are anxious about joggers or postmen or visitors – and reassure them that you are in charge and will protect them, they will gain an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and feel stressed.” – The Daily Telegraph

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