How to talk — and listen — to your pets
Here’s a guide to interpreting what their tails, ears and fur are saying
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Updated: 8:30 a.m. ET June 18, 2007
When my black-and-tan Cavalier, Twyla, is happy or excited, she twirls on her hind legs. When she wants a treat, she looks at me, then at the cookie jar, then back at me. When she wants to go out, she heads downstairs and sits in front of the door. And there’s never any doubt that she’d like a belly rub. Despite her lack of words, she’s a great communicator.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could talk, like Dr. Doolittle, to the animals? Of course it would, but take heart: We actually can talk with them, in a manner of speaking. Human vocabulary may elude our pets, but they all communicate in consistent ways. By learning to read their tails, ears, fur and vocalizations, we can become fluent in such foreign tongues as Siamese and Persian, Pekingese and Bernese.
Look at tail wags. In a study with the less-than-riveting title “Asymmetric tail-wagging responses by dogs to different emotive stimuli,” Italian scientists observed that dogs’ tails wag more to the right when they feel positive about a person or situation.
That’s intriguing because it reflects research in humans showing that the left brain, which controls the right side of the body, is associated with such feelings and emotions as affection, security and relaxation.
It’s a pretty cool discovery, but more important is the ability to read basic body language and know which wag means “I’m so happy to see you” and which one means you’re about to find a dog attached to the seat of your pants. For instance, a slow, stiff tail wag is more a warning than a welcome. This dog is signaling potential aggression. Most people know that confident dogs carry their tails up, while insecure pooches approach with tails tucked between their legs, but there are many other ways animals tell us what they're thinking.
Ears, for instance, are full of attitude. Both dogs and cats prick their ears up or forward to show interest and lay them back when they’re fearful.
Have you ever stroked a cat, only to have it suddenly strike at you with claws or teeth? If you had been paying closer attention, you might have noticed a fixed stare, flattened ears, flailing tail, fur standing on end or skin rippling beneath your hand.
Those are all signs that the cat is probably being overstimulated, says Marilyn Krieger, a certified cat behavior consultant from Redwood City, Calif. She says too many people don’t recognize signals that a cat is about to bite or scratch.
An ongoing learning process
Not everything we think we know about animal body language is correct. Some 20 years ago, a popular belief was the idea that people needed to communicate with dogs using wolf-pack behavior such as scruff shakes and “alpha rolls” — holding the dog on its back and staring at it.
Another misunderstanding involved how to establish leadership over dogs. Trainers advised owners to show they were in charge through such actions as entering doors before the dog or eating their own meals before feeding the dog.
“Some were led to believe these procedures would fix any behavior problem,” says Mary R. Burch, a certified applied animal behaviorist from Tallahassee, Fla., and author of “How Dogs Learn.”
While it's certainly important for your canine pal to recognize that you’re the top dog, such dominance techniques won’t magically solve all behavior problems.
What’s needed, Burch says, is specific training tailored to each behavior. She explains that the best way to communicate with any animal is to learn the basic principles of that animal’s behavior and respond fairly and consistently. Play, exercise and training will all enhance your relationship with your dog or cat.
‘Can I have some chicken?’
Once you really begin paying attention to and interacting with your pets, their inventiveness and complexity may surprise you.
Take Wyn, Burch’s Welsh Springer spaniel.
“Wyn would sit politely across the room and watch if my husband ate a snack,” Burch says. “One day, Wyn must have really wanted some of whatever Jon was eating because he just couldn’t stand it — he came over and tossed his prized orange ball at Jon. I said, ‘I think he is willing to trade his beloved ball for some of your chicken sandwich.’ Jon, a behavioral psychologist, was intrigued. He took the ball and gave Wyn some chicken. Now, we have a dog who uses the ball like a credit card. When he wants something, he brings the ball and offers it for whatever it is he’d like to ‘buy.’”
In other words, Wyn and the Burches learned to speak each other's language.
Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning author who has written many articles and more than a dozen books about dogs and cats. She belongs to the Dog Writers Association of America and is past president of the Cat Writers Association. She shares her home in California with two Cavalier King Charles spaniels and one African ringneck parakeet.
© 2007 MSNBC Interactive© 2007 MSNBC Interactive