May 18, 2014 – By Kris Butler – Canine communication is perhaps the most important and the least understood dogly behavior. Dogs and people are different species, and so perceptions of socially acceptable behaviors differ, one from the other. Human families tend to limit identification of “inappropriate behaviors” to those dogly behaviors directed toward people, and easily overlook how human behaviors might really be interpreted by your dogs. A dog’s communication must be carefully considered, too, so you understand what your dog is expressing about interactions with its human family members and other people within broader family social circles. 


Part 1 of Self-Space & Expression – Interpreting Dogly Behavior will help you identify dogly behaviors you might have previously misunderstood or not even noticed. I challenge you to take this information and begin to “listen” to your dogs with fresh eyes. (Yes, that is exactly what I meant to write!) 

While humans communicate about millions of topics, most canine communication relates closely to personal space. Proxemics is the study of personal space. The term “proxemics” was coined by researcher Edward Hall during the 1960’s and relates to the study of our use of space and how various differences in those uses can make people feel either more relaxed or anxious. There is an entire industry which exists today to assist businesses in designing (human) environments that use space effectively to make people feel comfortable in crowded social settings. For businesses, it is a matter of money – the more comfortable customers are, the more likely they are to feel good about their experience, spend money, and come back.    

Within species’ territories, there are zones. The zone at which an individual (canine or human) is first aware of another is the public zone. From there, moving closer, one enters the social zone. Although it is permissible to be in another’s social zone, it is the non-verbal communication between the individuals that will make the situation either intimidating or acceptable. Moving still closer brings an individual into another’s personal zone.

Closer than the personal zone is the intimate zone, which includes actual contact. Any individual is overwhelmingly aware of another within the intimate zone. Species maintain rigid rules of communication within this proximity. Regardless one’s intent, ignoring or being unaware of those rules can be perceived as disrespect or intimidation.

One example most people are familiar with is that of an elevator that is already occupied when you want to get on. As the door opens, you and the people inside give each other appeasing smiles. As you enter the elevator, if you must stand directly next to or in front of other people within their intimate zones, you avoid eye contact and continue to smile until you have turned quickly toward the elevator door, facing the same direction as the others are facing. The facial expressions and posturing are communication signals relating to the close proximity of people who are unfamiliar with each other.

People, even people who realize they are unfamiliar to a dog, usually walk right into the dog’s intimate zone without much introduction. Looking directly at the dog’s face, moving straight in toward the dog’s head, a person will then lean over the dog and reach out to touch the dog. Dogs communicate differently and, naturally, they interpret human behaviors in their own (canine) terms. A straight approach aimed at the head of a dog signals tension from the dog’s perspective. Leaning over and maintaining eye contact can signal intimidation or disrespect to the dog; yet most meetings between people and dogs begin just this way.

A better human-to-dog greeting would be to approach in an arc, so that the person ends up at the dog’s side instead of front-to-front. Even with repositioning and moving in an arc, dogs often signal appeasement during greetings. Whenever the barrier of an intimate zone is crossed, dogs respond by some degree of signaling, just as humans signal other humans. To the dog, these signals are obvious announcements of respect, appeasement, or feelings of intimidation. A dog might lick his lips or lick the person, avert eye contact, turn his head away, turn his body away, lie down, roll over, or even try to leave.

Touching is the most intimate act of communication. Of course, no one would suggest that people stop petting their dogs. However, it is crucial that you are able to determine whether your dog is seeking out this intimate contact from people outside of the family or just obediently tolerating what they perceive as an invasion of their personal space. You must observe your dog to make such a determination.

Kinesics is the study of non-verbal communication – body language. There are two elements to any communication: the delivery and the reception of the message.  Body language enables any species to send messages, note reception of messages, break through defenses, and avoid conflict. Body language is dogly language!

Although each dog  is  unique, some  of  the  more  common dog-related signals concerning  personal territory include head turning, lowering head, turning away, averting eye contact, squinting or blinking eyes, licking lips, licking other individuals, grooming, scratching, sniffing, yawning, moving slowly, moving in an  arc, moving straight in, sitting, lying down, rolling over, freezing, shaking  off,  tail wagging, bowing, lifting paws, or raising hackles. Often humans do not recognize these signals, or they misinterpret them as disinterest or disobedience; yet each signal is part of the ongoing messages dogs might be trying to convey about personal territory.

During interactions with people that take place in dogs’ intimate zones, dogs are likely to communicate respect or appeasement. Turid Rugaas first identified these subtle signals as “calming signals” and they include behaviors such as licking their lips, licking people, averting eye contact, turning their heads away, turning their bodies away, lying down, or rolling over. Dogs’ calming signals are meant to convey, “I know that we are in each other’s territory, but it’s okay, don’t worry.” These dogly behaviors might remind you of the elevator scenario with people.

Sometimes dogs signal respect or appeasement by engaging themselves in activities that have nothing to do with the strangers in their space. These behaviors, often called “displacement signals,” include sniffing the ground, self-grooming, scratching, or chewing on something. Displacement signals are meant to convey, “We are here in this same territory, but it’s okay.  I will not even acknowledge you. See? I am totally doing something else.” Doing something else seems to lessen the stress associated with dogs’ perceptions of uncomfortable social contact. Compare that to a person who stares at her cell phone screen rather than acknowledging unfamiliar people on an elevator. People who do not understand the communication taking place might correct their dogs for demonstrating these types of displacement behaviors. “Stop sniffing! Watch me! Pay attention!”

According to research published by Ralph Adolphs in 2009, the individual sense of personal space is constructed and monitored by the amygdala, the region of the brain involved in fear. When dogs’ apprehensions are not acknowledged and addressed, those fears can escalate into behaviors that look like aggression to humans. Dogs might use barks and growls to convey fear. “You are too close and I am afraid. Move away!”

Symptoms of stress in dogs should be considered physical reactions to temporary or long term changes within the environment, which can be (but are not necessarily) related to personal space. A stressed dog often looks like a dog that is hot – panting, perhaps with sweating paws. A normally eager-eater temporarily refusing training treats is likely indicating stress. Stressed dogs present some of the same behaviors that relate to personal space, especially yawning, shaking off, and displacement behaviors. Longer term stress might cause loss of appetite, excessive shedding, hyper vigilance or fear, and can lead to health issues.

Now, go and purposefully observe your dog. Have you seen your dog demonstrating any of the behaviors described here? Consider the context in which the behaviors occur. Observe carefully, then check back for Part 2 of Self-Space & Expression, as your author takes behaviors described here into real-world scenarios and discusses why this information is important to every family that includes a pet dog.

Individuals and families whose dogs have attended American Dog Obedience Center’s boarding school are invited to schedule one or more private sessions with the dog to study dogly behavior. Phone or email for details.

Much of the information within this article is from Therapy Dogs Today: Their Gifts, Our Obligation – Second Edition by Kris Butler, and used with permission from Funpuddle Publishing Associates. Therapy Dogs Today is available in ebook versions from DogWise and Amazon, with quantity printed copies for groups available from publisher.

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© 2014     Kris Butler     All rights reserved.   Photo by Kris Butler