What are Dog Signals and Social Cues? And why do they matter? If you want to know what your dog is telling you then you need to understand the language your dog speaks. Dog signals and social cues is the language your dog speaks. Like any language each individual communicates using their own style. The materials on dog signals and social cues teaches how a dog will respond in a given situation. Unfortunately most materials aren’t able take into consideration all of the variables that we need to consider when we observe our dogs.
It can be even more confusing when a dog uses the same signal and it has multiple meanings. We can compare it words we use that have multiple meanings. A great example is aloha which can mean hello or good bye depending on the context. There, in a nutshell, is the key – context.
If we know the context when we observe our dog we can have a better understanding of the message she communicates. By knowing the context it is easier to determine if the paw lift means everything is wonderful or if it means that she is uncertain or wary.
Another useful tip: it is helpful to cluster several signals together. Clustering dog signals is similar to putting words together to form a sentence. From there we can form a paragraph and before you know it you are hearing an entire story. Take a moment, learn the language and listen to your dog’s story.
How do we know if the story we are hearing is happy story or one that needs intervention? Let’s use the traffic light model to define zones. It works because it is simple, clear, and easy to understand. The zones that are defined here provide you with instruction as well. When we use zones it is important to remember that they don’t define the dog rather, they define behavior.
Here is an illustration to help you see how this system works with different dogs.
The illustration shows how different these respond to situations. The Life’s Good signals seem pretty consistent even with different dogs. The responses begin to change when the dogs display their with stress signs.
- Caution: yawn vs paw lift; lip lick vs rolling; shake-off vs sniffing – these are very different signals between the dogs. Note – these are only the “big” signals that are named. There are other signals displayed too.
- Danger: panting (with tension) vs scratching; making self small vs self-soothing licking; frozen in place vs trembling – again very different signals are displayed.
- Worth noting: look at the difference in size in the black dog, Jade, in the down position from the Life’s Good to the Danger. The change in her size in this instance matters.
- The beagle, Charlie, doesn’t usually scratch or self-sooth unless he is stressed so when he displays those signals something is bothering him. If it happens once, he is in the Caution zone, but if it happens several times then he has moved to Danger zone.
How will your dog respond? Take photos and complete observation logs. The logs are for you, but if you want let me know how you are doing… If you have questions ask – either on Facebook or here. The key is to observe your dog. Take the time to get to know your dog. Keep observing your dog over time because your dog changes.
Remember, each dog has a unique response to situations. Not only that, but over time, dogs change the way they see the world. It is a good idea to keep a photo journal of how our dogs look at life and respond to situations. Now, that would be amazing! Not only are documenting how wonderful our dog is, but we are learning how our responds in each situation. We are learning how our dog changes over time.
Resources to help you understand Dog Signals and Social Cues:
Aloff, B. (2005). Canine body language: A photographic guide: Interpreting the native language of the domestic dog. Dogwise.
Handelman, B. (2012). Canine behavior: A photo illustrated handbook. Dogwise Publishing. (the hard cover book is wonderful, the e-book is all in color)
McConnell, P. (2009). For the love of a dog: understanding emotion in you and your best friend. Ballantine Books.
Rugaas, T. (2005). On talking terms with dogs: Calming signals. Dogwise publishing
Glenk, L. M., Kothgassner, O. D., Stetina, B. U., Palme, R., Kepplinger, B., & Baran, H. (2014). Salivary cortisol and behavior in therapy dogs during animal-assisted interventions: A pilot study. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 9(3), 98-106.
Hasegawa, M., Ohtani, N., & Ohta, M. (2014). Dogs’ Body Language Relevant to Learning Achievement. Animals, 4(1), 45-58
Jakovcevic, A., Elgier, A. M., Mustaca, A. E., & Bentosela, M. (2013). Frustration behaviors in domestic dogs. Journal of applied animal welfare science, 16(1), 19-34.
Mariti, C., Gazzano, A., Moore, J. L., Baragli, P., Chelli, L., & Sighieri, C. (2012). Perception of dogs’ stress by their owners. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 7(4), 213-219.
Mehrkam, L. R., & Wynne, C. D. (2014). Behavioral differences among breeds of domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris): Current status of the science. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 155, 12-27.
Ng, Z. Y., Pierce, B. J., Otto, C. M., Buechner-Maxwell, V. A., Siracusa, C., & Werre, S. R. (2014). The effect of dog–human interaction on cortisol and behavior in registered animal-assisted activity dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 159, 69-81.
Wan, M., Bolger, N., & Champagne, F. A. (2012). Human perception of fear in dogs varies according to experience with dogs. PLoS one, 7(12), e51775.