Do You Speak Dog?

drawing of girl with dog

Hi there! My name is Maddie, and I’m just your average fourth grader. Well… maybe not quite average but, rather, a perfectionist and a worrywart with an overactive imagination and a flare for being dramatic. At least that’s how my mother would describe me!

One of my best friends in the whole wide world is our 5-month-old Golden Retriever puppy Bella. We named her Bella because Bella means “beautiful” in Italian, and she really is beautiful. She has become an important part of our family, even though she isn’t human.
At each of Bella’s puppy checkup visits at the veterinary clinic, Dr. Lacy teaches us how to help Bella grow up to be a happy adult that is comfortable in our human world. Dr. Lacy said that even though we think of our pets as part of our families, it is so important to remember that they are, in fact, animals. So they think like animals, and they talk like animals. We think like humans, and we talk like humans, so we have to help our pets understand us, and we have to learn how to understand them whether they’re a dog, a cat or some other critter.

Mom told me to imagine what it would be like to, all of a sudden, find myself in a foreign country where no one spoke English, all by myself unable to understand what anyone was saying. Would it be scary? Frustrating? With my overactive imagination, you can just guess what I thought of this idea! Yep, I immersed myself in this daydream and pictured myself trying to let the people around me know I was hungry or lost (and scared) or that I had to use the restroom. Ugh! It wouldn’t be easy. That’s for sure, and this opened my eyes to how Bella must feel as part of our human family.

Bella barks when she’s excited, like when we play ball, and whines when she needs something such as getting us to open the door so she can go out to potty. Dr. Lacy taught us, though, that most of what Bella says is with her body language—her face, ears, tail, mouth and body.

The first things we learned were how to tell when Bella was happy and how to tell when she was worried or scared because worried or scared dogs are more likely to bite. “Happy dogs” are loose—with relaxed ears; level, sweeping tail; squinty eyes; open mouth. “Worried dogs” are more tense—closed mouth; ears back; wrinkles around eyes or forehead; tail might be wagging but will usually be low and stiff with only the tip of it moving; and they may also yawn or lick their lips or look at you out the sides of their eyes (half-moon eye); or slouch/hunch their body, try to hide or move away. I thought wagging tails meant the dog was happy, so I was so surprised to learn this isn’t always true.

Dr. Lacy taught us that there are many things that humans do that dogs can find stressful or scary, such as hugging/kissing the dog (which can make them feel trapped), staring at the dog and patting them on top of their head and that, kids, most of all, can seem scary to many dogs because we move quickly, make screechy noises, are unpredictable at times and might do scary things such as pulling hair or body parts, climbing on the dog or going up to the dog when it is resting or has a special treat, food or toy item.

Just yesterday, my little sister, Katie, who’s 5, was jumping around just a few feet away from Bella, and my mom noticed that Bella yawned, put her ears back, turned her head away and closed her mouth. Mom said was Bella saying she was worried. She asked Katie to play further away, and then Bella relaxed and closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep. Maybe Bella wasn’t sure what might happen next? Would Katie jump on her? It makes sense that she’d be worried.

This really is a very big topic, so in the next issue we will explore more about how dogs talk and all the things that humans, and especially kids, do that can make dogs worried. All of this will help us to know how to interact so that the dog is happy and comfortable.

Note to parents: Use this story and the other resources to prompt/support a family discussion about dog body language and how to foster trusting relationships between dogs and kids:

If you’d like to read more about Maddie and Bella, “Bella’s First Checkup” is available on Amazon or you can contact Dr. Kohler for a signed copy by emailing her at [email protected].