“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

-George Bernard Shaw

A teacher once said to me, “Miscommunication is the main source of conflict.” I didn’t fully understand that statement until I began working in animal rescue. Why do we see animals return to the shelter? The reasons vary, but the top culprit that I would like to discuss today is a failure to communicate.

CASE STUDY: Charlotte is a 2yr old, female terrier mix. She was adopted as a puppy and returned to the shelter as an adult dog. The reason for owner surrender was listed as: “Extreme Dog Aggression”. When asked about what exactly happened, the adopter said that he never socialized Charlotte with any other dogs during the time that he had her (a one year period). His family came to visit with their dog and she attacked the other dog causing injury.

  –Let’s break down what could have happened and possible causes:

*Lack of socialization?

*Improper dog introductions?

*Conflict over resources? Was there food, toys, humans present at the time?

*Lack of correction?

*Was the injury made worse by humans trying to pull the dogs apart?

  -We don’t know the answers to the above questions and probably never will.

Could this situation have been avoided? YES!

Dogs, just like humans have their own language. They have barks, growls, howls, whines, and screams, and tons of other noises in between. I don’t know about you, but I don’t speak dog. I have tried and my pack mostly just looks at me like I’m insane. This next bit of information will probably come as a shock to you: DOGS DON’T SPEAK ENGLISH! Whaaaat? I know! You’re probably thinking, “But they can learn words and commands.” This much is true. Dogs are highly intelligent and do have the capability to learn numerous words and commands, but they still remain unable to speak English (or any other human language). So the question is, “How do we bridge the gap in communication?”

“To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.”

-Tony Robbins

CASE STUDY: Back to Charlotte. I let Charlotte get settled in at the shelter for a few days before putting her trying her in play group for an evaluation to see exactly what kind of “extreme dog aggression” we were dealing with here. I noticed that she was a bit barrier reactive (barking, growling, lunging as she walked by dogs in kennels), but nothing that I felt was extreme. I already had 2 very solid young dogs in the yard ready to play, Sandy and Gunner. When I walked Charlotte into the play yard she seemed very unsure of what to do, obvious lack of socialization. I’m not going to sugar coat this blog and tell you that Charlotte was a playgroup rock star on day one and her adopter was completely off-base because this is not the case. Charlotte came in on a drag leash and was immediately defensive toward the other dogs. However, dogs, like humans can and do learn from their mistakes. BUT, we must allow them to make these mistakes in order to learn. Charlotte is a very quick learner. She came in growling, and jumped on one of the other dogs. I quickly corrected her and she responded appropriately. She tried a second time and was again corrected. From then on, it was play time! She did so well that she was able to come off the drag leash and she had a blast! (See the video of her first day!)

Humans, do not be afraid to let your dog make mistakes! Failure is necessary in order for them to succeed. If they are never allowed to make a mistake and receive correction from you. How can you ever expect them to learn what is and is not acceptable behavior?

Dogs perceive the world much differently than we (humans) do. Sometimes things that humans find completely non-threatening are terrifying to dogs, hugging for example. Parents, please quit telling your kids to hug the dog. (This is coming from an adult that took 7 stitches to the face from a dog bite that occured last year.) While some dogs will tolerate hugging, some will find it extremely threatening and react accordingly.

I encourage any and all humans that own dogs or interact with dogs to do some research and try to gain a better understanding of canine communication. Not only is it interesting, but it will help you and your dog find a common ground. It is my hope that it will one day keep fearful, unsocialized dogs such as Charlotte from being surrendered to the shelter due to a simple human-canine miscommunication.

There are tons of resources for understanding canine body language and communication out there. Here are a few of my favorite links:  

Incredibly Detailed Charts Will Help You Speak Your Dog’s Language


Dog Communication and Body Language


(Video of Charlotte and Gunner Playing)