The art of your dog’s bark

2013-07-11 00:00

NOT many people seem to be aware of the large number of dogs that are euthanased worldwide as a result of behaviour concerns. There are many contributing factors to this sad fact. Today, I would like to look at interspecies communication, specifically humans to canines.

Dogs can produce five basic sounds:

• infantile — cry, whimper and whine;

• warning — bark and growl;

• eliciting — howl;

• withdrawal or flight — yelp; and

• satisfaction — grunt.

With each other, voice communication is probably the weakest form of canine communication, while the most powerful is scent. Nevertheless, voice is still a requirement. For example, a suckling pup’s crying will produce a caring and nurturing response from its mother, or from the mother’s side, a growl may be aimed at her offspring. Whatever the sound, both parties are designed to act accordingly because their brains are designed for this. With humans, though, voice is not the weakest, but, in fact, the strongest communicator (in conjunction with body language).

However, when we talk to our pets, the content is vastly different, quite simply due to varying design criteria. With humans, our most common and effective method of communication is to use words in sentences. We do not have the ability to read scent or smells such as Toffie Terrier is capable of, and to make matters worse, our communication can be affected very powerfully by emotions.

This means we need to modify our intra-species noise so that the canine members of our pack understand us. For instance, if the hierarchy between owner and pet is appropriate, pets will come when called, or sit on command. Where the relationship is not as desired, the emphasis will tend to be on forceful, threatening and shouting behaviour, meaning that emotions also have an impact. Resorting to this only increases tension.

Human intervention in dog breeding has affected all forms of communication, but none more than the infantile category of sounds. By inadvertently perpetuating juvenile behaviour into adulthood, we increase the frequency of crying and whining.

One rarely sees adult dogs whining at each other. Such whining is mostly directed at the human members of the pack and these are mostly learnt behaviours based on our responses. Pups register quickly that juvenile whines and whimpers are extremely effective at achieving attention. The most common withdrawal sound in dogs is the yelp. If a senior dog causes such a sound to come from a more junior pet, it is all part of natural communication processes used to reinforce dominance and submission. Unfortunately, we misinterpret this as aggression and interfere by consoling, or reassuring the recipient and scolding the aggressor.

Surely, it makes sense to understand what our dogs are saying to each other, or to us. Sadly, when we fail to deal with these shortcomings, the worst price we may eventually pay is a broken heart, but at least we get to stay alive. It is the puppies that grow up to become problem dogs, which pay the ultimate price. Just recently, I was told about a book called Animals Lost In Translation. I thought to myself this is a sad, but very apt way of describing the ending of so many human-canine relationships due to a superior species’ inability to interpret, or translate the language of another. A puppy’s cuteness may awake wonderful feelings in us, but we must ensure that those feelings do not change to emotions of loss and grief.

• Steve van Staden is a canine behaviour specialist and can be contacted via his website — Advice is only dispensed in face-to-face meetings with owners and their pets.

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