I sure hope so, because your dog talks to you. Your job – as a responsible and loving pet parent – is to listen and try to understand what your dog is saying. And by listen, I don’t mean just with your ears, because dogs have a number of ways they speak to us: through sound (auditory), through touch (tactile), visually, and through smells (olfactory). If you really want to communicate with your dog, you have to listen with all those senses.
Anyone who has walked a dog knows that dogs love to sniff and smell things in the world around them. When I’m walking Straxi, it seems that she wants to sniff each and every blade of grass individually. This can be so incredibly frustrating for me, if I’m viewing the walk as another chore I need to cross off my list. But if I’m listening to her, paying attention, I know that the sniffing and the (what seems to me) dawdling is actually a really important activity for her.
When dogs are able to spend time sniffing, it meets their sensory needs – it gives them the opportunity to engage in canine behavior that’s hard-wired while also providing them with all sorts of information about the world around them. What other dogs have been through this area, for instance, or whether a dog is friendly or not. So don’t yank the leash and hurry your dog along next time you are out for a walk with your canine companion – listen to her and let her learn what she can with her nose.
Dogs communicate visually, also, and while they see the world very differently from how we see it (they actually do see colors – if you were told as a kid that they only see black and white, that’s not entirely true. They see dark and light shades of colors, and they can see colors like yellow and purple/blue toned colors. I think that’s excellent, since purple is absolutely my favorite color, and Straxi’s blankets are purple. All of them. It makes me happy that she can see that – as Alice Walker said (this is a paraphrase), it makes God angry when we walk past the color purple and don’t appreciate it.
Aside from the colors that dogs can and cannot see, the visual communication they enjoy with us and other animals (dogs especially) informs how they behave and choices they make socially. When Straxi and I used to go to the dog park, she would spend some time at the bottom of the hill (that’s where the entrance is) looking up at the other dogs as she moved towards them. Even at that long distance, she could pick up on quite a few dog social cues: how are the other dogs moving? Stiffly or fast? Are the other dogs focused on toys, their owners, each other? On Straxi herself? Just like we read body language as we go into a party, or into any social situation where we aren’t 100% sure how things are going to play out, dogs rely on it, too, and by the time Straxi would join with the group, she likely had a pretty good idea of who was going to be welcoming and who might not be.
Dogs pay attention to how tails are wagged, how paws are placed, how eyes appear, where the ears are held on the head, how the mouth is held, whether the other dog is sneezing, yawning, or scratching…these all have meaning and message to dogs, and give them plenty of feedback to decide how to act in the group and with other dogs.
Visual communication with us, their people, has to be frustrating for them, when you take all this into account. They watch our behavior just like they watch the behavior of other dogs, but frequently we don’t consider that as we move through our day (I know I don’t, especially when I’m late for work). Our dogs might be sending us signals we don’t pick up on, and we might be sending them signals that they simply don’t understand. In their minds, they are trying to communicate with us using complex but easily grasped terms, but judging from the behavior they elicit from us, we basically communicate in monosyllabic nonsense.
When our dogs stare at us, watching our every move, they are listening to us, waiting to see what we will tell them (intentionally or not) next.
I know I don’t have to go into a lot of detail about tactile communication – we all love to pet our dogs, and most of them love to be petted in return. Dogs hairs are very different from ours – they have touch receptors at the base of each and every hair on their pelt, so the next time you pause in your day to give your best friend a belly rub or a head skritch, know that he hears and understands exactly what you are saying to him.
Sometimes I joke with my husband that I wished that Straxi could talk to me, so I could more easily understand what she wants, when she wants it, but once you pay a bit of attention, and actually listen to what they are saying, our dogs can be excellent conversationalists.