I think it was one of my favorite dog experts, Stanley Coren, who coined the term “Doglish” for the language of our domestic canines. This “language” isn’t really very similar to ours at all. Dogs do make lots of noises (barks, whines, growls, etc.) that have meaning for them. However, those noises don’t correspond to words and seem to be used to reinforce body language. This is just about opposite of how people communicate: we look to body language to reinforce the spoken. To make things more complicated, dogs interpret body language differently than people do.
For example, look at a simple greeting between humans. We consider it’s polite to stand facing the other person, smiling, leaning forward, making eye contact and holding out a hand. A dog interprets a head-on posture and direct stare as a challenge. Showing teeth with the mouth closed is a warning to back off. Leaning forward and pawing are also questionable — could be an attack. Dogs don’t greet each other that way at all! A polite dog greeting avoids eye contact, mouth closed or open with a relaxed upper lip, making a kind of swerve around the other dog’s head in a comma shape, heading to sniff the other dog’s rear end — and they keep their paws to themselves.
There are further complications when a human greets a dog. With very few exceptions, humans stand taller than dogs. When we bend over the dog and try to pat it on the head the dog’s instincts interpret that as an attempt to dominate! In the dog world, vertical height is not merely symbolic, but as Animal Behaviorist Patricia McConnell writes “Dogs interpret an increase in vertical height as an increase in status. Period.” In other words, before passing “go” the dog thinks you’re challenging for status! So many times, dog owners tell me that they think their dog was abused early in life because they duck away from a greeting. After questioning, it turns out that this greeting is usually being hovered over with the human trying to pet the dog on top of the head. The dog is simply uncomfortable, but too polite to give a warning to back off, so s/he tries to move away.
This misunderstanding is also the cause of dog bites. I watched an episode of some dog rescue program on Animal Planet where a Rottweiler bit the animal control officer who was petting him soon after rescuing him from a bad situation. The officer took the blame on himself and the dog was given some re-training. The program of course, got the officer and dog together again as a follow-up, and the officer stood talking to the interviewer HEAVILY PETTING THE DOG ON THE HEAD! I watched horrified, knowing what was coming and sure enough, the dog bit him again. Mind you, the dog had put up with about 30 seconds of what was to him extremely challenging and uncomfortable behavior — while being held in place for the camera. The Rottie couldn’t escape and was giving signals that he was uncomfortable: wrinkled lip, tensing up, closing his mouth, etc. But no one was “listening!”
It seems to me that the burden of “understanding” should fall on us humans with our big brains and superior thinking abilities.