Can’t We Just Talk: “Learning to Speak Dog”

Jacqueline C. Neilson, DVM, DACVB

Jacqueline C. Neilson, DVM, DACVB
American College of Veterinary Behaviorists

(Originally Published March 15, 2014) – This month features Jacqueline C. Neilson, DVM, DACVB, 2011-2013 president of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, a leader in the field of veterinary behavior and now author of the chapter “Can’t We Just Talk?” from Decoding Your Dog, a new book by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists on dog behavior.

Can you tell us how you decided to become a veterinary behaviorist?

About a year after graduation from veterinary school I was in general practice when a client brought in their adult Shih-Tzu to me for euthanasia because of aggression. The female owner was 8 months pregnant and both she and her husband feared for their unborn child’s safety. I was woefully undereducated and unprepared to deal with the case, in part because the behavioral training I received in veterinary school was limited to 3 days. I vowed then and there to improve my behavioral education so that I could provide a comprehensive physical and mental healthcare to my patients.

In your chapter of the book, you talk about two big myths that sabotage many human-canine relationships. What are they?

The two big myths that sabotage the human-canine relationship are that dogs are trying to dominate us to become pack leaders and the other is that they know when they have done something wrong and feel guilty about it.

What is really behind the dominance myth?

Most dogs show aggression secondary to feeling threatened or fearful. Dogs have limited ways to respond to threats. For example, they can’t use words to tell us that they don’t really feel comfortable being pet by a toddler. In general they have the fight or flight options…they can leave or they can use aggression to back away the perceived threat. Unfortunately owners often misinterpret the aggression as dominant behavior and try to punish or dominate the dog physically, escalating the dog’s fear/aggression.

Why has the dominance myth prevailed in the public?

People often incorrectly equate aggression with dominance or leadership. In fact, when you carefully study the behavior of both wolf (the dog’s ancestors) and dog packs, the leaders in the pack rarely exhibit aggression. Also people want a quick fix and fighting back by “dominating” their poorly behaved dog seems like a fast solution. And while it could temporarily stop an undesirable behavior, it doesn’t address the underlying reason the dog engaged in that behavior in the first place and in fact, in many cases it will not stop the behavior but may escalate the dog’s aggression.

What is the guilt myth?

The guilt myth is when humans misinterpret a dog’s submissive signals as an indicator of guilt. In fact, submissive signals are a dog responding to our upset behavior/body language and trying to convey that they surrender. But if we misinterpret those submissive signals as guilt, people may feel compelled to keep punishing the dog (after all, they look guilty and must know they did something wrong) and the dog can’t do anything to diffuse the situation.

Can you explain the guilt factor?

For punishment to be an effective training method it has to be delivered within 1-2 seconds of the undesirable behavior. Unfortunately, when owners think their dog is showing guilt for an activity, they often feel like they can and should punish the dog for a behavior that may have happened hours earlier. The “guilty” look is actually the dog responding to an owner’s upset body posture/words at that moment with submissive postures in an attempt to surrender and get the owner to stop ranting. The owner may think these submissive postures are proof that the dog knew what it did and they continue to punish the dog.

What are the six steps you outline in the book to better communicate with our dogs?

  1. Learn the dog’s language
  2. Listen with our eyes
  3. Use cues that work for dogs
  4. Avoid miscommunication traps
  5. Teach a common language
  6. Have realistic expectations

Are there certain parts of the dog’s body that a pet owner can “read” that can help determine what a dog is feeling?

Yes! By paying attention to their eyes, ears, mouth, tail and overall body carriage we can tell a lot about how a dog is feeling.

Can you give some examples?

For example ears that are forward and pricked up indicate an alert, attentive or aggressive dog. Ears that are pulled or pinned back indicate and fearful, submissive or defensive state.

Are there some final tips you would like to give?

When we bring a dog into our homes and our lives, we are blending two different species with different communication abilities under the same roof. We should strive to find a way to communicate effectively through teaching a common language (obedience training) using positive reinforcement and learning how to interpret a dog’s body postures and signals.

To order a copy of Decoding Your Dog click here. To learn more about the College of Veterinary Behaviorists, visit or visit us on facebook at dacvb.

The information provided in the Goodnewsforpets ACVB Helping People Help Their Pets columns is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to replace the services of a veterinary behaviorist. The information should also not be construed as a recommendation by the ACVB or for any course of action regarding veterinary medical or behavioral advice. The editors, authors and publisher disclaim any responsibility for adverse effects resulting directly or indirectly from information in this column.


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