Behavior

Nonverbal Cues Help Us Better Understand Dogs

Dogs deal with issues in making friendships too

October 7, 2022 (published)
Spike. Photo by Dr. Nathan Mueller

Making friends is a process, yet the difficulty isn't specific to humans. Dogs deal with the issues around friendships too. Our 15-pound Chihuahua-miniature poodle mix, Spike, was a tiny guy when we adopted him and has been adored by everyone he's met. His giant ears give him a cartoonish appearance that everyone loves. Even our other dog, Shug, instantly bonded with him the day we brought him home from the hospital. He had a hard start but Sir Talks-a-Lot made a comeback from a close call with parvovirus and lived to tell his tale loudly.

Dogs seem to understand each other well enough but unfortunately the same cannot be said for us humans, as our attempts to understand them can often be futile. So, what are dogs trying to articulate when they bark once, twice, or even three times? Is there a different interpretation for one vs. two barks of the same pitch, or does the interpretation change with varying the pitch alone? It seems like there's a full sentence worth of interpretation for every canine word “spoken.” Because their language hasn't been interpreted into anything we can understand, dogs often resort to showing us what they're talking about with their noses or their paws. But it turns out, trying to determine what they're saying may not be all that difficult if you're watching for what they're trying to say and using a bit of creative inferencing.

”I'd like a bite of your snack.”

“I'm bored so take me on a walk.”

“Here's a ball, please throw it for me, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again … ”

“Rub my belly.”

The day I brought Spike home was the beginning of a nearly ten-year companionship between him and Shug. His long poodle hair needed proper grooming to keep it out of his eyes so Shug promptly decided to wash his face every day with her tongue. It was her way of welcoming and assimilating him into the family, it appeared, and she continued his face cleanings until her last day with us.

Before we adopted our female border collie, Macie, it was just Shug and Spike for several years. He had been the baby of the family, but when we walked in with 8-week-old Macie and introduced them, his reality suddenly changed. Shug couldn't have been happier to greet her, as always, but Spike did not feel the same way. He immediately took to hiding and sleeping more; he'd barely even look at her most days. I'm pretty sure her endless supply of energy annoyed the crap out of him. To top it off, she was originally about his same height but added insult to injury by rapidly outgrowing him. Was he annoyed? Was there some jealousy as well? I suspect both. With time, he eventually relaxed and started interacting with Macie, but it took a full three years and Shug's passing for them to see eye to eye on the matter of their friendship.

Some of us already know that losing a close friend or family member is the absolute worst experience. It changes everything. The feelings of loss and sadness that come along with losing someone you love is common only to those who have endured it. None of the days ahead are like any of the days before. I lost a best friend too, years ago, but unfortunately, I can't verbally communicate to Spike that I understand how he feels since Shug's passing. Like people, it appears dogs mourn after the loss of a loved one and with time it appears they eventually learn to adapt by redirecting their love, time, and energy to others remaining in their closest circle. Shug and Spike spent every day together and slept next to one another every night. That's a lot of tongue baths. It's obvious to those who know Spike best that there will never be a way for Macie to take Shug's place in his life, but that's okay because they've finally become good friends.

Some say dogs don't have feelings — an old preconception and complete nonsense! You'll have a hard time convincing me every time I have picked up Shug's collar from its usual place around her box of ashes, the other two are reacting like they do to any other random noise. Her name tag makes a clinking, musical noise, specific only to Shug and her collar. I don't know if Spike, Macie and Shug for that matter, process(ed) their memories like I do, but it's obvious to me that when Spike and Macie simultaneously respond to that noise, they're remembering her or at least something about her because it's a response like no other. It's different from the way they respond to someone knocking at the front door or the doorbell ringing. It's even different from the clinking metal on the leashes when it's time for a walk, or when we ask if they want a treat. They immediately freeze when they hear it, then a couple rounds of side-to-side head tilting with ears as erect as they can be. Spike stares at me and then the collar, deeply, as if he's missing her presence. In those few downtrodden moments, he appears to grow more and more intent on knowing where she went while focusing on the sadness created by her absence.

Luckily, we knew Shug's life was drawing to a close ahead of time so we were able to plan a little bit in advance. We didn't want the other two to think we'd taken Shug from them, so they came along with us to the hospital on the night she passed. It was almost midnight when we were all in the examination room. When it was time for her to move on, Spike did a quick nose-to-nose with her, without any prompting from us, and spoke one deep bark right at the moment of her passing. Macie, sitting right behind Spike, seemed a little confused but kept quiet and focused on what was going on in front of her, which was all but typical of her usual busy-as-a-bee self.

The next morning was different too. Where there typically is a lot of spinning and jumping to show excitement for breakfast, neither one seemed super interested. There wasn't any of the typical prodding from them to hurry and get their food. They did both readily eat but the whole process was much quieter and duller than usual. Even the speed at which they ate was dramatically slower. When they finished, I was sitting in the middle of the couch. Usually, they both jolt toward the back door to go out after eating but on that emotional first day without Shug, they didn't. Instead, they both joined me on the couch, one on either side. Positioning themselves at a 45-degree angle between me and the long axis of the couch, they placed their noses in my lap almost simultaneously, as mirror images to one another. It was a quiet couple of moments for us all. To interpret it as I have may be a little presumptuous, but it's not preposterous. They used their body movements and postures as well as their behavior and mood in such a way that morning to non-verbally communicate about as well as any human could with words.

Events surrounding Shug's passing reminded me that emotion, communication, and making friends are as common to dogs as they are to humans, yet some scientists remain skeptics of anthropomorphizing animal subjects because of the difficulty that comes with trying to prove it. Proving dogs have emotion would require getting repeatable results in a well-designed research study, but it is problematic because dogs cannot speak about their emotions. Conversely, I've personally seen too much subjective evidence in support of dogs having emotional lives to reject it, such as displaying specific activities like play; exhibiting senses such as fear, boredom, and hunger; and even showing preferences for specific foods. I don't have any objective results to prove it but I can guarantee if you're not watching for nonverbal cues from your dog, you're going to miss them. On the other hand, if you are, you might learn something about communicating with your dog. I did. Who knows, you might even learn something about how to communicate better with other humans too, as I have. Our dogs remind me all the time about the importance of patience and listening to others.

What did you learn from your dog today?


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