If your efforts at talking to your dog are driving you barking mad, attempt instead to understand what it is trying to communicate to you, advises Janet Menzies

Learning how to communicate with your dog properly is vital not just to training an excellent gundog, but also to ensuring your dog feels secure and happy. Janet Menzies suggests that we should stop trying to make our dogs understand us. Instead, we need to learn doglish.

Communicating effectively with your dog will give you control in every situation. Dogs are pack animals and need a natural hierarchy, so you need to make sure you are the unquestionable leader. Read be pack leader in your own home and learn how to outrank the entire pack.


It was  a Dr Dolittle moment. Bisto, shivering from head to toe, sat regarding me with a solemn and mournful expression. What on earth was he trying to tell me? Non-gundog people seeing him in this mode usually ask why he is so miserable and when I am taking him to the vet. But long observation of Bisto at the start of the shooting season has enabled me to translate this apparently despondent body language as meaning “extreme anticipation bordering on frenzied excitement”. How I wished, like Dr Dolittle, that I could tell him that we would be grouse-shooting that very day. “Just wait a little longer and then it will all be great,” I wanted to say.

Rex Harrison’s Dr Dolittle sings, “If I could talk to the animals / just imagine it / chatting to a chimp in chimpanzee.” Meanwhile zoologists are constantly claiming success at teaching word recognition to the great apes. But have the researchers got it the wrong way round? Dr Dolittle is attempting to communicate with animals using their own language; he’s not trying to teach them a human vocabulary. Animals and humans cannot converse with each other in verbal language. It isn’t just because animals don’t have the complex physical articulation needed to verbalise. More importantly, animals are non-verbal; their brains don’t use words to think.

All that scientists have really done so far is teach certain receptive species to associate images and sounds with specific human concepts of meaning. For example, a chimp can learn that certain sounds coming out of human mouths, or certain images shown to it, are associated with its own concept of banana-ness, but it doesn’t think: “Oh, that piece of fruit is called a banana by humans.”


Hugh Lofting’s Dr Dolittle, conceived during the First World War, was not only way ahead of his time in engaging on the animals’ terms rather than ours but far more likely to be successful than those taking a verbal approach. Words just don’t exist inside an animal’s brain. It feels sensations, sees sights, tastes certain flavours, hears sounds and smells scents but it doesn’t put verbal names to all this sensory input. Many scientists are convinced that animals also have feelings and emotions, and most of us who live with domesticated animals would certainly agree with that. Every day we see behaviours and reactions in our animals which we can only characterise by using human words such as “excited” , “happy”, “miserable” or “mischievous”.

Communicate with your dog. Lab

It may be a dog’s emotions are felt in terms of scent. This is certainly important in developing a relationship with its owner.

But are we right to do this? As soon as we put human interpretations on animal behaviour we are in danger of anthropomorphising. You can see this happening every day in the local park. Someone lets his large dog go bowling up to a small child and start bouncing all over the now-wailing child. “Oh don’t worry, he’s just playing,” says the dog’s owner, not only anthropomorphising the dog but also misinterpreting its behaviour. In fact the dog has eyeballed another animal at about its own eye-level and decided that a display of dominance is needed – quite the opposite of playing.

This is an example of why it is so important if you want to communicate with your dog effectively we must learn to “talk their language” rather than assume they are using ours. When training gundogs we must realise that scent awareness and analysis takes up a huge portion of their brains. Experiments show that dogs can detect some human cancers, and presumably they do this by actually smelling the cell changes going on within the body. So your dog can certainly smell whether or not you are going shooting probably before you have even stepped out of the house.


If your dog is finding it hard to concentrate while you are training, you should be aware that the cause of distraction is far more likely to be a smell than anything else.

Learn how to communicate with your dog, especially when you are working on “blind” retrieves. Remember that since a dog’s sense of smell is far better than his sight, the retrieve isn’t blind to him at all. If you walk out to lay your blind retrieves and then send the dog, he will be brilliant because he can follow your scent, but he will be less successful if you have secretly thrown the retrieve. When you are doing retrieving training, be careful about what other sources of scent there are in the area. Competing in a working test at a county show, I sent my dog out on a blind retrieve and he came back with a discarded ham sandwich (we should have got double points).

It is hard to know exactly what a dog’s sense of time might be, but they can certainly detect the passage of time through scent. Where we just see a dead bird, a dog is more like a forensic pathologist, detecting how long ago it died through its smell. It may even be that a dog’s emotions are felt in terms of scent. Where we feel affection for our dogs through a series of memories of happy times, a dog may simply have an abstract sensation of a good smell associated with his handler. This is all part of learning how to communicate with your dog.


Food is another factor in a dog’s world which many professional dog trainers use to their advantage in how to communicate with your dog, giving the dog small food treats to reward desired behaviour. This works less well for gundog training because we want the dog to be centred on the handler, not on any food treat he may be carrying. You will often see trained pet dogs that are bonded to the treat, not to its giver, which has a very limiting effect on the their relationship. Some professionals try to get round this by eventually substituting a clicker as the reward signal, but this seems complicated when all that the dog really wants by way of reward is a secure and familiar relationship with its handler.

Communicate with your dog. Puppy

If your puppy is holding his head to one side it probably means he is confused by engaged and ready to learn.

Security is vital to all domesticated animals, and is probably another of the dominant emotions in a contented dog and vital in how to communicate with your dog. Where a human might describe herself as “happy”, the canine equivalent is likely to be a generalised, non-verbal sensation of being safe and unthreatened. Creating this circumstance is crucial for effective gundog training and in how you communicate with your dog. If you adopt the role of a successful pack leader – assertive, confident and able to protect the dog – then the dog feels “happy” to obey you because every command reinforces his secure feelings. This may explain why so many gundogs wag their tails happily while being told off by their owners; it’s a case of “Beat me, Boss, please.” It’s also why Bisto can only really relax once he’s had his first dressing-down of the season.


Here are some basic, everyday gestures and communications translated from dog to human.

Bark plus step backwards = worried/fearful but bluffing it out.

Bark plus step forwards = aggressive, dominant, guarding territory.

Growl = warning off inferior dogs. Should never be directed at a human (humans are never inferior).

Bark plus bouncing = playful, immature, usually an action of puppies or youngsters

Head on one side = uncertain, possibly confused, but engaged and ready to learn.

Belly crawl = submissive, but can be a way of avoiding obeying a command.

Shake paws = a rather dominant sign (depends whose paw is on top). Often mistranslated by humans as charming.

Tail on one side like a walking-stick = extreme happiness (also means in-season bitch is ready to mate).

Shivering = usually means excitement (rarely due to cold).

Nose down = strong and interesting scent on ground.

Jumping, standing on hind legs = usually an effort to mark a fallen bird (cockers mainly).

Tail tuck = fear, submission (also means an in-season bitch is not ready to mate).

Head up = strong and interesting scent in air.

Tail frenzy = quarry found.

In your face = dominant, also immature sign of neediness.

Licking = sign of immaturity with dominant tendency.