Understanding Your Dog

Navigating the Umwelt of Canine Communication and Behavior

As the owner and user of a human body, you are empowered when you know how that machine works.  If you have kids, you have the responsibility to understand how the newer models function; it helps you help them. 

As a dog parent, understanding how dogs work can make your life easier and more satisfying.  Like children, dogs have physical bodies along with behaviors that give you information.  You can adjust the workings as needed.

Leonardo daVinci’s Vitruvian Man illustrates daVinci’s idea of ideal human body proportions.

Understanding Your Body

Your body is an intricate machine that functions on its own to a great extent.  Your brain, heart, lungs, kidneys, and all your other organs and systems work together to sustain life and help you thrive.  They do this without your awareness of most of the process.  Issues with your health that cause malfunctions often start at a very low level, under your radar.  Bacteria or viruses entering your body stimulate it to start working to stop the damage and get the pathogens out of there.  The process is generally so successful that you’re not even aware you were on the verge of an infection.  But sometimes, you feel illness, pain, or even itchiness. These symptoms lead you to understand things are not working as well as usual.  You may notice marks on your skin or other changes and know you need to ask for outside help.  Your doctor can offer treatments, medications, or maybe surgery to help your body in its efforts to heal your ailments.

Helping Your Kids Understand Their Bodies

As a parent, you monitor changes in your kids’ behavior. You continually consider whether their behavior changes are due to normal growth and development or signs of illness or injury. The latter may require your intervention.  If you need to help, you consider whether home treatments will do the job or the doctor should be called.  Along the way, you teach your kids about how their bodies work as different stages or issues arise.  The knowledge you give them will help them manage their own health in the future.  

Problem-solving Requires a Strong Foundation

You solve health problems through a process that works best when you have strong foundational information about your body and those of your children. This allows you to focus your efforts in the right direction.  If you didn’t know that infections often cause fever or that vomiting indicates a problem within the gastrointestinal system, you would be less successful in choosing remedies to try.  You understand that behavior changes can result from many sources, such as physical injuries to the body, changes in foods going into the body, or psychological changes due to normal development, trauma, stress, or learning. If you didn’t, you would be in the dark about how to solve the ensuing problems.  

The more you understand about how your body works, the better your problem-solving will be in keeping it healthy.  How’s this related to dog training? It’s the same!  The better you understand how your dog works, the better your problem-solving and your problem prevention systems, will be. 

Dogs Live Their Own Lives

Your dog is a sentient being, living his own life from a dog’s perspective.  Like the human body, a dog’s life on his own terms is easy to overlook.  Given enough of the right resources, a dog can live his life without your awareness of all the things going on.  However, he is captive in your household with the benefits of health, safety, and longevity.  Dogs are attached to humans for good reasons:  they may express natural behaviors on the streets as “village dogs”, but they may not live long or maintain good health past their youth.  Dogs living as pets have substantial physical health benefits, but they also need to be able to express their “dogginess” so they can have fulfilling, low-stress lives in harmony with the humans and other species they live with. 

A tan and white dog standing still.

Your Dog’s Umwelt

You have goals for how your dog needs to fit into your household. You decide where he should relieve himself, sleep, and eat; how he should behave when visitors come in; when he should bark, exercise, and play; and how you want him to interact with you.  Your dog doesn’t know anything about these goals because they are based on your human “umwelt” and not his own. 

“Umwelt” is the conglomeration of perceptions from all sensory systems within the neurology of an animal, including humans.  For instance, each species has its own abilities for perceiving colors, hearing frequencies of sound, what those organisms can smell and taste, and that’s only the beginning.  Your dog functions in an umwelt of “dogginess” that influences how he perceives not only sensory input but social signals from members of his own species and of others, his typical response systems, how he explores the world, and how he deals with stressful stimuli.  Most of a dog’s activities don’t make sense based on how a human would perceive the stimuli he is responding to.

The Umwelts of Fictional Beings

In fantasy books and movies, you are introduced to fictional populations of elves, monsters, and more, who operate within their own umwelts.  You become familiar with how they see the world through the descriptions of writers using their imaginations to provide detailed illustrations of beings that are very different from humans.  In reading and watching, you may find understanding and even inspiration from how they operate within their social systems and abilities.  You can easily see how their umwelts are different from those of humans.


A Na’vi from the movie Avatar connects his ponytail to the tentacle of a direhorse to connect the two via their neural systems.

In the original Avatar movie, the Na’vi were the blue beings that were the main characters. When a Na’vi rode a direhorse, he would attach himself by connecting his ponytail to a tendril-like appendage on the animal.  This neural connection allowed the rider to communicate wordlessly with the steed through a two-way flow of impulses through their neural systems.  The two species travelled together, adjusting to changes of direction, obstacles, and weight shifts as one, no talking or interpretation of body language or other signals needed.  It’s not completely clear whether the umwelts of the two species melded in some way or some translation of their perceptions occurred during the transfer of information through the connection, but the different umwelts seemed to be less important when the connection was in place.

This was pure fantasy; but the need to communicate, to cross the gap between the umwelts of the two species, is exactly how humans need to understand dogs in order to make the most of interactions between members of two species.  Humans have to go to a little more trouble than the Na’vi did, though.

Body Language: A Key to Your Dog’s Umwelt

Humans can’t connect themselves physically to dogs and allow direct flow of information, but can learn to communicate with them at quite a high level through understanding what they need in order to communicate.  B. F. Skinner demonstrated how behavior is predictable and Ogden Lindsley pointed out that behavior is lawful, or “the learner is always right”; meaning, what is taught is what is learned.  Applying this knowledge allows an understanding of how what you and others do affects what your dog does, and vice versa.  Information is not lacking; scientific research has provided plenty of information about how dogs experience the world.  Among these facts lies the possibility of understanding where your dog is coming from when he makes choices, and that is the beginning of true communication.

This black-and-tan dog’s body language shows curiosity and caution all at once; his curiosity could lead him to show friendly gestures to the camera operator, but for now, he is content to wait and see what might happen.

Body Language: A Site Map of Feelings

A dog’s body language is a site map of his feelings and responses, precursors to bigger behavior sets.  People sometimes say, “I wish my dog could talk, so he could tell me how he’s feeling.” But his body language is usually doing just that and in a better way than talking can.  A dog’s body language changes with physical and psychological changes.  Body language changes in a split second with immediately occurring stimuli and over time with chronic input.  With practice, you can learn to notice subtle changes in the environment when your dog’s muscle activation and posture change. 

Learning to read what your dog is “saying” through his body language can make communication just as clear as if he were speaking to you.  You can start your learning with our Dog Reading Course.  In fact, dog body language can be more reliable than things humans say. The positions, movements, and adjustments you can see are directly connected to the dog’s own neurological system. That means they offer factual information that is always correct. This is one of the reasons behavior is lawful, as Ogden Lindsley stated.  Humans don’t always speak truthfully, as you know.

The Umwelt of Dogs Gives Further Information 

In addition to the body language of individual dogs, it’s important to understand generally what dogs are all about.  This knowledge can help you understand why they do the things they do.  Dogs use their senses in specific ways with abilities that are different from those of humans. Understanding how they perceive the world and how they function can help you live with dogs so that both of you thrive.  It’s important to understand their social structure; how they interact with other dogs and humans. This helps you tell when those interactions are leading to better ones and when they are not.  You may already know that the social systems of dogs are different from those of humans. Remember that they are not based on dominance hierarchies as was once thought.

Just like your body, your dog is functioning on his own; your awareness does not matter. Understanding how he operates, just like understanding how your body works, can help you have a healthier relationship with either one.  If you’re a dog lover, you may believe that your dog is nearly as essential to your life as your body is.  You are certainly essential to your dog’s success in life.  Do him the solid of understanding him better.  The Mannerly Dog can help.

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