Tattle Tails

By Linda Pescatore

January 16, 2009 5 min read


Dogs and cats find a way to communicate with their owners

Linda Pescatore

Creators News Service

Imagine if you and your best friend didn't share a single common word. An odd friendship, to be sure -- but not unlike the one between humans and pets.

Despite the language barrier, two-thirds of pet owners say they do understand their pets, and a slightly smaller percentage say their pets understand them, according to a recent poll by the Associated Press and petside.com. (Unfortunately, nobody surveyed the pets.)

During a recent walk, Barbara Venti, of San Diego, Calif., said she could tell her West Highland white terrier, Bella, missed her buddy Sailor, who was being spayed that day.

"She [was] going to every room in the apartment and whimpering, looking under the beds," Venti said as the terrier bounded off to greet a dog the same breed as Sailor. "She [was] more needy and wanted a lot of attention."

Despite being visually impaired, Antonia Galindo, also of San Diego, said she has no problem reading the behavior of Tenzen, an American bulldog who is also her service dog.

"I can feel his body and his tension and how excited he is," she said. "He'll come up and lean against me if he needs to get my attention."

Galindo knew something was up once when Tenzen laid his head on her bed and wouldn't move.

"He kept whining," she said. When she finally got up, the kitchen was steamy. A forgotten pot of water sat boiling on the stove.

Is it possible we can communicate with animals, or do we simply project our feelings onto them?

"Clearly we have to make inferences about internal states, but there's been enough research and observational study of dogs in particular and cats to somewhat less of a degree, so that we have a pretty good idea of what certain body postures and movements indicate about the internal emotional state of the animal," said Pamela Reid, an animal behaviorist and vice president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' Animal Behavior Center in Urbana, Ill.

Reid hopes her organization's revamped website, aspca.org/behavior, will help people better communicate with their pets.

"We're going to have excellent descriptions and photographs of dogs and then, hopefully soon, cats," she said of the site, which launched in late January. "The more people learn, the more they can understand [animals] and take better care of them."

Tail-wagging is an obvious signal, but doesn't always mean the same thing.

"Dogs certainly do wag their tails as a friendly social behavior. [But] you need to look at the entire dog," Reid said. "Look for a relaxed happy face, a wiggly body. The tail should be set in its natural position -- not really low or really high -- and wagging in a loose wide wag.

"Cats don't wag their tail that way. They do twitch their tail when they're less happy or when they're really aroused. If they're watching a squirrel, you often see the end of the tail twitching. So it's not necessarily a negative emotion -- it's more of an aroused state.

"Dogs also will wag their tails when they're feeling less friendly. Typically the tail is very stiff. It's up quite high. They call it flagging instead of wagging. That's where many people get confused because they say, 'Right before he bit me, I saw him wagging his tail.'"

It can be difficult to distinguish aggression from playful roughhousing.

"A playful animal might have their lips pulled back, their teeth showing and growling, but the rest of their body doesn't match," Reid said. "The rest of their body is loose, their muscles are relaxed [and] their tail is more consistent with a happy look."

Although it's natural for us to ascribe human emotions to pets, it can sometimes lead us down the wrong road, Reid said.

"Somebody comes home and their dog is slinking around, looking guilty," she said. "If we see something chewed up or we see a puddle on the floor, we assume that the dog knew he did wrong."

Dogs do sense something's wrong, but they don't connect it with their own prior behavior.

"Give them the benefit of the doubt," Reid said. "They're not as smart as we are and that's why we love them. So we shouldn't punish them by thinking they're smart when they aren't."

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