The Vet Is In: Best Friends’ Guide to Dog Talk

Dr. Marvin Ordway
By Dr. Marvin Ordway March 15, 2016 12:08

murphy 5 2016 smallerImagine going into the post office, sniffing a few times and immediately knowing that your friend John had been there two hours ago.

The stuff of science fiction? Not for dogs, whose sense of smell is hundreds of times more acute than that of humans. The proof is in the puppies: A male dog can detect the scent of a female in heat from more than a mile away.

Canines also bark, whine, whimper and growl to communicate with us, and have an elaborate and extensive body-language vocabulary they use both with us and with other dogs. Licks, wags, nips, pants and yelps are all part of a language we’ve come to understand.

But smell, a secondary scent in humans, is a cornerstone of dog communication.

Dogs can actually visualize what they smell because people, animals and even inanimate objects leave scents – molecules floating in the air – wherever they go. For dogs, every new room in a house or each neck of the nearby woods produces a plethora of olfactory information.

We inadvertently communicate with dogs by leaving very personal scents that we ourselves can’t detect. That post office trick? Dogs do this everywhere they go.

What’s more, dogs leave almost as many scents as they pick up. Glands on the sides of canine faces, in their anal areas and between their toes release potent scents – pheromones – that are extremely important for dog-to-dog communication. Scents from urine alone can communicate dominance, sex, age and even the health of the marking dog.

Every time a dog defecates, those anal glands scent the stool with a very specific – and in a dog owner’s home, very unwelcome – scent that relays “I was here.” Think of it as a dog’s personal ID card or Social Security number.

Because a dog’s sense of smell is so much more powerful than ours, some owners may wonder why their pets eagerly sniff out and feast on feces, rotting food and the remains of dead animals. Well, long before they were domesticated some 40,000 years ago, dogs were scavengers. They react to a terrible stench like people savor the aroma of fresh bread in the oven or a steak on the grill – as a prelude to a gourmet treat.

Dogs also communicate physically, often telegraphing their intentions with body language. Some are obvious: A dominant, potentially aggressive dog moves straight forward, staring straight ahead with its head and tail up. The hairs on its back rise, and its teeth are bared. The message is clear: This dog is not interested in friendly sniffs or a game of fetch.

When out walking with your pet, how can you avoid a confrontation? First, check your pet’s body language. If it’s the same as the approaching dog’s, considering leaving the area. But if your buddy lowers his body, tucks his tail, pulls his ears back slightly, avoids eye contact and licks his lips, chances are he doesn’t want to fight. Some dogs will even roll over and urinate to show complete submission.

Still, if the other dog continues undeterred, consider retreating. But if an approaching dog takes its time, walking in a relaxed manner and wagging its tail, it’s usually a sign that “I’m OK with you if you’re OK with me.”

Even tail wags can be nuanced. One study found that if a dog wags its tail to the right, it’s conveying positive feelings. To the left indicates negative; a circular motion says, “I’m happy.”

Bottom line: Even a tail-wagging dog may bite, so pay attention not just to the tail, but to all of its body language. And err on the side of caution. Lucky for me, more than 80 percent of my canine patients are in the “I’m OK” group. A very small percentage of dogs will stare directly at their vet and try to have them for lunch. Sedation and a muzzle sometimes are the only answers. On the other hand, skittish, overly submissive patients can usually be won over with treats, patience, a soft voice and a gentle hand.

Barking, whining, growling and howling are also parts of a dog’s language. Depending on its intensity, the bark can communicate separation anxiety, greeting, excitement, fear, aggression, “let’s play” and many other things. Many dogs whine to seek attention from their human family members. Your pal may be saying he’s hungry, needs to go out, wants you to go for a walk or throw a ball for him.

Separation anxiety can also result in excessive whining, howling, defecating or worse in an owner’s absence. Whining may also indicate pain, particularly if it comes with excessive thirst and decreased appetite and activity. If symptoms persist, consult your vet.

Dogs also communicate with touch and seek out physical contact with their human family members. They nose, lean into people, lick or jump up on them – dog talk for, “I am here, pay attention to me, let’s do something.”

During your time together, you and your dog will develop a shared language. Your dog may learn that tying your shoes means it’s time for the daily walk, or that the sound of a can opener means it’s dinner time.

But all dogs, by virtue of thousands of years of evolution, share the same canine vocabulary. No foreign language classes or special interpreters – not even for French poodles, German shepherds or Siberian huskies – are needed in the dog world.

Marv Ordway has practiced in Twain Harte for more than 30 years.

Copyright © 2016 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Dr. Marvin Ordway
By Dr. Marvin Ordway March 15, 2016 12:08
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