Language Learning

We had an interesting encounter on the beach on our holiday last week. Otter was approached by a similarly sized but older terrier. They met head on with tails high, wagging slightly. Their bodies were a little stiff and they were on their toes. They were both very alert and not entirely relaxed so I called Otter away after a few seconds. The young girl with the terrier confidently informed me that it was OK because their tails were up - that you only need to worry when the tail is down.

It was not the time or place for a lesson in the nuances of canine body language, so I simply said that I wanted to keep things calm between them as Otter was still young - and sure enough, a few seconds later they had circled round, play bowed and raced around the beach in a chase.

The girl was, of course, partially right. Certainly if either of them had held their tail very low or tucked, you could assume that the encounter was not working for them. But a high tail carriage on its own could mean anything from playful arousal to tension - not to mention being the characteristic tail carriage of many terrier types.

And of course tail carriage is just one small part of the larger picture.

Canine body language is complex. Not only are there multiple elements for us to learn to observe: tails, of course, but also ears, eyes, mouth, feet, body posture, neck position, coat, vocalisation, and behaviour. Each of these has a huge and subtle range of variations. And to make it even more complicated, what we see is always contextual. I swear if you saw and heard Roo and Martha play sometimes you would think they were tearing each other limb from limb but it is play (albeit high arousal play, which can switch very quickly into cross words between them, so intervention is normally wise).

The very talented canine observer and TTouch instructor, Sarah Fisher, always says that the only canine experts have four legs and she is spot on. When it comes to learning our dog’s language, we are all students. We need to learn the vocabulary of their language - the different elements and their variations, as well as the grammar - how all these combine together to pass on a message.

But if we want to do more than just recognise a few words, if we want to really grasp the richness of the language and move towards fluency in understanding, we need to immerse ourselves in it, spend time with “native speakers” (our dogs), observe the nuances of communication.

There are some great illustrated books to help with the vocabulary and grammar (Barbara Handelman and Brenda Aloff both spring to mind - as well as of course Turid Rugaas) but to make sense of these, we really need to watch dogs. Watch them live. Watch videos. Ideally watch videos in slow motion.

Photographs can only show so much. Video allows us to see how the interactions play out. Slow motion allows us to see the things that happen so quickly that we miss them at real-life speed (though, of course, they are not missed by the dogs!).

In our Canine Confidence Club, we have an ongoing challenge where we practise observing canine interactions through video. Doing it as a group means we all pick up more than we would doing it alone and we can discuss possible interpretations of the behaviours we are seeing (while recognising that they are always only interpretations). And it is fun.

This is the kind of activity that can really help us with our canine language learning!