A Guide to Communication Between You and Your Pet

By Julia Wachuta, Quinn Clark and Connie Guerrero

Pets are humans’ best friends. We love talking to them, playing with them, and even cuddling with them. Although we love our pets, we can often forget their side of the communication. What does it mean when they yawn without reason? What does it mean if their tails are lashing side-to-side? In order to be as good of a friend to pets as they are to you, you have to be able to understand them, and understand to what extent your furry friend gets you.

 How to Read Your Pets and How They Read You

The first step to communicating with your pets is to understand what their body language means. Many pet owners commonly misinterpret their pets’ actions, which can deter from better understanding what their pets are trying to tell them. It’s commonly thought that a dog’s wagging tail is a sure sign of happiness; however, this isn’t necessarily the case.

Kim Rinzel, an Animal Behavior Specialist at the Wauwatosa Veterinary Clinic, goes into pet owners’ homes and identifies how to create better relationships between animals and their humans. She does this through identifying why an animal is acting up or why they are behaving a certain way in general.

“Wagging does not mean a dog is happy,” Rinzel said. “Wagging just means adrenaline is in the system –good or bad. It could mean ‘yay, I’m glad you’re home’ or it could mean ‘get out of my yard.’ It’s just adrenaline that’s moving that tail.”

One of the main indicators of how a dog is feeling is where their tail is in comparison to their spine. In order to understand how your dog is feeling, look past whether or not their tail is moving – look at where the tail actually is.

“Anything above spine level is what we [behavior specialists] call ‘tall’,” Rinzel said. “Kind of like, ‘I just saw the mailman.’ Anything below the spine level tends to be either fearful or uncertain. It might still be wagging, but it’s the height that tells you what they’re feeling.”

Cats are no exception to this. Our feline friends are easy to read just by their tails.

“When a cat twitches their tail, that’s frustration or bordering anger,” Rinzel said. “If a tail is lashing side to side, that is not a cat you want to snuggle with.”

If you notice that a cat or dog’s tail is indicating fear, it is important to act accordingly. According to Conservation Education Specialist and dog handler Alisha Spruit, having the right body language is vital.

“If a dog is very scared around you, it’s best to turn your back, get low and put a hand out so the dog can sniff you with no fast movements,” Spruit said.

Pets’ body language can speak worlds as to how they’re feeling, even beyond just how their tails are wagging. Even when our pets bark, meow, or anything in between, it all comes down to how they appear.

“A lot of times animals don’t vocalize in situations – it’s just body language,” Rinzel said.

While certain barks and meows can mean something, don’t forget to look at how tense or timid they may appear. Just a simple bark can mean something specific according to how they are visibly behaving.

“You can get a playful bark, a distressed bark, a get-out-of-my-way bark – each one of those may or may not sound different,” Rinzel said. “It all comes down to their body language.”

Cat owners commonly wonder what their cats are trying to say when they meow. These aren’t just “crazy-cat-lady” thoughts – they’re completely justified, because it’s true; cats are trying to communicate!

“They [cats] are trying to interact with you,” Rinzel said. “Cats get a bad rep for being unsocial, but they’re really not. Cats have so many different kinds of meows to try to interact with you.”

After having a better understanding of animals’ behavior, you have to make sure you’re interacting with them correctly. The best way to get pets to respond is visually. Especially when first meeting an animal, you shouldn’t get too close in their personal space.

I never come in frontal, I’ll always come in from the side,” Rinzel said. “I’ll look out the corner of my eye at them. Direct eye contact is a threat, regardless of the species.”

The best way to approach an animal is to let them take the lead. This will make them feel safer and you’ll have a better chance of them warming up to you. Good communication with animals is on their terms.

“I wait for them [dogs] to approach me,” Rinzel said. “If they don’t approach me, I’ll offer a fist. It’s easier for them to see, and it might have a treat inside. If I’m approaching a cat, I’ll offer a finger – just a finger. Not a fist. At that point, they can sniff your finger.”

Aside from having the right body language, the way a person speaks can make an animal comfortable or afraid. According to Spruit, tone of voice is a determining factor in how an animal feels about someone.

“A lot of it with cats and dogs is our voice and body language,” Spruit said. “They understand a not very friendly noise compared to a sweet high-pitched noise, and they always keep an eye out with how you react to them. With high pitched voices they feel either more excited or more calm, and with louder sounds they seem to be more scared.”

In addition, getting dogs to understand the difference between right and wrong takes positive reinforcement. Yelling at or punishing dogs only causes them to feel anger and resentment.

“Back in the old days, it (training dogs) was punishment-driven, and now it’s more positive-driven, and the effectiveness of training has increased dramatically,” Rinzel said. “I’d rather take a bit longer and have a good relationship, than to hustle along and then the dog one day bites me because he’s so angry.”

According to Spruit, training animals is commonly done with a food reward as motivation.

“They like to feel rewarded for what they’ve done, and that will condition them to doing the trick for a treat,” Spruit said. “It helps them learn much better. Kind of like working towards a goal. Once you reach your goal, you reward yourself.”

Spruit recalled the process in which her sister trained her guinea pig using food.

“She taught her guinea pig to follow her by feeding her guinea pig every time he walked with her and fed as she walked,” Spruit said. “She would be able to take him for walks up and down the road.”

How Much Do They Really Understand?

The bond between pets and their humans isn’t just a pet owner’s hopeful thinking. Although it is certainly different from humans’ relationships with each other, animals and humans can create a relationship between one another.

“If you’re angry, sad, or happy, they know that,” Rinzel said. “Animals can sense emotions.”

Animals understand more than just emotions. They are capable of learning some of our words.

“They link words with training and good experiences, like when a lot of us think ‘mac ‘n cheese’ we get excited,” Spruit said.

Animals can understand whether a word is good or bad, even if they don’t know what it means.

“If we say a word around them a lot, they start to pick up that word even if they are unsure what it means,” Spruit said. “Like saying cutie to a cat. It just is something good to them because we are talking about them in a good way.”

Next time you meow at your cat, be mindful of how you’re doing so. Certain meows mean different things, and even humans can replicate these noises. Meows can even mean human-like ways of communication, like saying hello.

“If you do that meow back to them, they know exactly what that means,” Rinzel said.

As for the infamous cats vs. dogs debate, dogs win in the “understanding their humans” department.

“Dogs, by far, are the most aware of their people,” said Rinzel. “Dogs have been bred specifically to respond to us.”

People can further improve their relationships with their dogs by attending training classes with them. This helps dogs pay attention to you over other distractions, like a squirrel across the street.

The training process helps dogs become familiar with certain words. Although dogs better understand humans visually rather than vocally, dogs can learn words and become familiar with what you are saying.

“Dogs should learn how to sit with your hand first, then they are learning your tone of voice, and then they are learning the word,” Rinzel said.

Pet Owners’ Opinions

Pet owners have a lot of time to interact with the animals they’ve taken into their family. Through this interaction, a bond is formed and both human and pet learn how to understand one another.

“They understand the gist of what I’m saying,” said Emily Dachs, a student at Mount Mary University.

Dachs just got a new puppy, a German Shepard named Yukon. She has always had dogs; before Yukon, she had an Alaskan Malamute and a Siberian Husky.

Dachs feels that there can be a deeper level of understanding between pet owners and animals through interaction.

“They sense feelings,” Dach said. “If I’m more emotional I can tell that my dog, even as a puppy, gets calmer and lays by me. They can mirror your emotion sometimes.”

Heather Martin, a graduate student at Mount Mary University, grew up surrounded by dogs and cats. She loves both animals, but is “totally a cat person.”

While Martin is a cat person, she believes that dogs are more empathetic. Martin can even thank a dog for her life today.

“A dog saved my life,” Martin said. “When I was a kid I had my tonsils taken out. I started to bleed in my sleep but my dog at the time barked and nudged. When I finally got up I spit up puddles of blood. If it weren’t for my dog, I would have bled to death or needed a blood transfusion.”

Through Martin’s experience of being a pet owner, she has picked up on the differences between dogs and cats.

“Dogs are great (since they’re) more friendly and could potentially save your life,” Martin said. “Cats would be like ‘oh, you’re dying, that’s great.’”

“[Pets] definitely understand,” said Denia Guerrero, a dog owner for 15 years. She has had her current dog for three years. Genesis is an Australian Shepard that loves to get Denia’s attention.

“She’ll respond to ‘do you want to go outside?’” said Denia. “She’ll perk up her ears and she’ll wag her tail. She’ll respond to tone of voice and facial expression. When I get home she’s barking and jumping and licking me and she hugs me.” 

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