When you are angry, do you not puff out your chest? Do you not stand taller? Or do you cower yourself? Most of the time, unless someone is hurting you, you try to make your body language show that you are larger and more dominant – especially when you are angry. Dogs do the same thing too.
*Note* – This post comes from my other blog The Nonverbal Projekts, in case you have seen it previously.
This is definitely a long one guys, but gives insight into human-dog communication – one of the things that has helped me improve many misbehaviors in my own dog.
A couple of years ago, in my first lecture ever of my Master’s degree, I fell in love. Actually, it was an hour before that. Of course, I did not realize that you have to read before lecture, even before the first lecture, and I found out an hour before class that I had two readings that I had to read and prepare myself for.
So, I downloaded the first article and began reading the first one, hoping I would finish in time. This paper was called “Cross-Language Use of Pitch: An Ethological View” by JJ Ohala in 1983. Although not usually taught, intonation is considered a part of linguistics in that changes of intonation reflect different sentence structures. For example, to ask a question, you raise the pitch at the end of the sentence. However, the beginning of this article talked about how animals and humans both use pitch in order to convey similar messages.
I want you to imagine a dog. Any dog. What happens when they are angry with another dog, or when you get too close and they do not want you to come closer? The dog growls. In order to do that, they lower their vocal pitch.
Now, what happens when the dog is upset? The dog whines, which is an increase of vocal pitch. They also get louder, in order to ensure you get the message.
Don’t people use similar tactics? If you are a parent, have you ever seen parents yell at their kids to get their attention? They increase how loud (or the volume) of their voice in order to communicate with their children. Also, when you cry out in pain – don’t you increase your vocal pitch?
Let me give you another example. Going back to increasing the pitch at the end of a sentence to ask a question, doesn’t that show that you are weaker and dependent on somebody else to do something for you? A regular statement has a lower pitch than a question, demonstrating your certainty and confidence.
Let me give you one final example. When you are angry, do you not puff out your chest? Do you not stand taller? Or do you cower yourself? Most of the time, unless someone is hurting you, you try to make your body language show that you are larger and more dominant – especially when you are angry. Dogs do the same thing too. If they are scared, they will make themselves smaller and cower in a corner with their head down and their entire body curled in. Scared and angry children do similar postures.
All of this is biology and a way for other species to understand one another for survival. Only humans are known to have language since we are cognitively complex enough to use symbols to represent certain things. Other animals do not, from what research has been able to tell. However, before we as a species had this cognitive ability, we had to have another method of communicating. Although language can explain more complex ideas, most of the information that we pick up about another person is from their nonverbal behavior. Proof of this is when we pick up someone is upset even though they never said they were.
In the case of the voice, lower and higher vocal pitches are caused by a larger voice box, or vocal folds. Since the space is bigger, the sound naturally becomes lower. Therefore, a larger animal is more likely to have a larger vocal tract, causing them to have a lower voice. This is important for survival because if you hear an animal in the distance that has a lower voice, you may not want to get to close to them. Therefore, when you lower your voice, it shows that you a bigger and stronger than the other person – signaling that they should not mess with you. Therefore, a dog lowering their vocal pitch when they are upset is a warning to not get any closer because they can hurt you. In contrast, an animal who increases their vocal pitch is showing that they are weaker than you, and are more submissive.
Sometimes, we signals that are hard to interpret.
But you already knew that, right? Because you have seen it with your own eyes. You just understood what your dog was trying to say – though you may have not known the specifics. And you have always known this information.
I am a huge fan of Cesar Millan and if anyone sees his episodes, many people say that their dog is aggressive, and Cesar comes in and sees that the dog is scared. How does he know this? Well, he has more experience observing dog behavior to notice multiple nonverbal cues. The dog may bark, but it is a high pitch bark. You can also see that their body language is more cowering. They are just barking loudly to try to scare you away – even though they are scared.
Take a look at this video to see what I am talking about: Scared Dog!
Clearly, we all have this ability to interpret nonverbal cues, even though we do not realize it. We make these impressions subconsciously. However, sometimes we misinterpret our animals. And we do the same things they do! Have you ever seen people who are scared who begin yelling but they are really pulling away from you and cowering? Just watch a Beyond Scared Straight episode and you can see this often.
What is that expression? Their bark is worst than their bite?
Nonverbal communication is the most fascinating topic I have ever studied. It is found everyone in your life even though you may have never realized it before. When you start learning about nonverbal communication, not only do you begin to understand the world around you better, but you are more in control of your life.
Do you have any other examples from life or from the animals in your life where you could understand what they were trying to communicate to you? What clues did they give you?
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