• Holly

TTL 1: Canine Communication Part 3

This is Part 3 of the Training the Leader Dog Communications series. If you haven't read Part 1 and Part 2, I would recommend doing so.

In Part 2 we started at the Eyes and moved our way through to the Ears and Head. In this segment, we will talk about the Nose, Mouth, and Teeth.


Let's jump in!


Sniffing - Sniffing can sometimes be a calming/cut-off signal. Personally, I find it difficult to distinguish between sniffing to smell something and sniffing because the situation is stressful. However, the stressful sniff often occurs in place of the dog facing the stressful stimulus and most likely will be grouped with other calming signals. An example would be if the sniffing dog is moving its body away from the trigger. In the video below, the dog on the left uses sniffing as a calming signal in conjunction with a stretch around 0:28.


Pinned and tight lips - I see this mostly in one of two ways: mouth open or mouth closed. The right photo shows Duke with his lips pinned back while he is panting. The left photo shows pinned lips when the mouth is closed. Mouth closed with pinned lips can be a sign of tension and/or possible fear. Sometimes, it is a sign that your dog is about to puke, so move fast! Please note, if the lips are pinned back with a closed mouth due to a fear-like response, you'll see more signs supporting this. For example, the ears may be back. The photo on the left does not look fearful to me.




Panting - Panting could easily mean that your dog is hot and trying to cool down. It is also a very good indicator of whether your dog is stressed or not. For myself, whenever Duke is in a stressful situation, like at the vet, he will pant up a storm. A slobbery, frothy storm. If you looked only at Duke's panting, I believe his stress pant would be more vigorous than his happy pant. In addition, when he does his stress panting, his whole body will be showing me tonnes of different cues telling me that he wants out of the situation as fast as possible.


Yawning - While yawning may mean that your dog is tired or just woke up, it can also mean that your dog is trying to calm a situation, or itself, down. If you remember the video I took of Duke last week, the video started off with him giving a big yawn. Duke definitely wasn't tired - I had just gotten him up, in a sit, in a down, back in a sit, and was speaking to him in all sorts of different voices (low, high, fast, slow). It was all a little too much so he gave me a nice yawn to try to chill me out. There are many videos of dog-to-dog interactions where you may notice one of the dogs' yawns, especially if the interaction got a little too intense. They are just trying to slow and calm the situation down.


Lip and Nose Lick/Tongue flick - This is another one of those Calming signals. While a tongue flick can be very fast, I find it to be one of the most straightforward of the calming signals. The reason being is that a quick tongue flick is not something a relaxed dog would commonly do. The lip lick is a little harder to identify as a calming signal, but again, it will often come hand in hand with other signals, a yawn for example.


In this video, you'll see tons of nose licking. Please also notice the tight lips, yawning, squinting, turning her head away and ears back. You'll notice that she is wagging her tail for nearly the whole video, but it doesn't mean she's happy!


Next up, I am simplifying the "showing of teeth" by using just 2 categories: Side/Full and Front. Please remember that this is a simplified version as I believe there is lots more that goes into lips and teeth then my simple explanation.

Side/Full teeth display - When I see a dog showing a full arsenal of weapons by raising its lips and tensing them enough to show all its teeth, I interpret it as "Get away/Stop what you're doing or else I will use these beautifully dangerous teeth to make you go away/stop". The showing of all a dog's teeth is not in itself a sign of an aggressive dog, so please don't confuse the two. It is a sign of a dog that is serious about getting you to back off.




Front Teeth display - A front teeth display is what I call a "Dog Smile" and it warms my heart more than anything. Duke will do it when I come home after being away for a few hours. A few of my clients will also do it when I pick them up for their walk. It is often accompanied by a low wagging tail, ears back and squinty eyes. Sometimes this is called a submissive smile. By showing only the front teeth, the dog is saying "I'm not a threat and mean no harm."


Mouthing - I define mouthing as anytime a dog puts their teeth on you. Sometimes it is done affectionately, sometimes out of over-excitement or play, and sometimes as a warning. You will have to develop your eye for canine communication, trust your gut or be able to read the situation in order to tell which scenario is being played out.

Duke used to have a habit of mouthing my hand gently out of happiness when I came in the door. While I saw it as a sign of affection and trusted him to never bite hard enough to cause any discomfort, it's wasn't a pleasant experience for all the other people coming in. So I've worked hard to break that habit. While he will still mouth sometimes, it's no longer as common.


Grooming: Nibbles and Licking - Licking can be a sign of affection from your dog. However, I would caution you to know the difference between a one or two affectionate licks versus a neurotic 10-20+ lick fiesta. It's easy, is your dog hyper-focused on licking off salt or sweat/being neurotic, or is he more relaxed with his licking?

The only time I love having Duke mouth me is when he is affectionate and trusting enough to groom me. Have you ever had your dog just nibble your clothes with just the very front of their teeth in a quick and gentle fashion? That is them grooming you! It makes my heart swell and I don't have the heart to discourage it!


In this video, you'll see a wolf grooming his brother with licking and nibbling.


Duke loves this one gentleman - a good friend of my dad's - who is short, Italian and very macho. One day duke gave him his best dog smile and preceded to groom him as soon as he sat down. The gentleman was so confused because he knew that Duke liked him lots, but didn't understand why Duke was showing him his teeth and now biting him! He wasn't sure whether to pull out his macho-ness and show Duke who was boss or to embrace his Duke-loving side. The Italian gentleman was sure in for a lesson on Dog Communication and how Duke chooses to show his affection!


We have officially finished going through the head! Stay tuned for Part 4 where we will start talking about the body.

Until next time, happy trails, doggie smiles and grooming nibbles!

Holly, Duke and, Jax