Review of Stanley Coren’s Book Called “How to Speak Dog”

Dr. Stanley Coren has written a remarkable book on “Dogish” or the language of dogs.  (Stanley Coren, PhD, How to Speak Dog: Mastering the Art of Dog-Human Communication. Simon and Schuster.2000.) This isn’t the first book he has written on dogs but it is the one all dog owners should read; especially dog owners who also live with cats. The sub-title, “Mastering the art of dog-human communication,” provides a further indication of the content. Learning “Dogish” is an art form as well as a skill that will help humans understand what a dog is saying whether the dog is a pet or a stranger.

As you might expect, the book covers dog vocalizations as well as body language, and explanations as to what they mean. Just as human body language conveys a message, we don’t always know what the message means unless we have been taught the meaning. When we see someone crying, how do we interpret this behavior? Is the person sad? Are they physically hurt? Have they been laughing too hard? Unless we receive further physical clues, or an explanation, we don’t know what the tears mean. We have the same problem with dogs. They can’t speak to us in words so we have to look carefully at what they are doing.

Dr. Coren begins with an explanation of canine evolution and how our domestic pets continue to signal the same kinds of information, in the same way, as their wolf ancestors. He differentiates between language, speech and talk and whether or not dogs have what we call “language.” He also gives a wonderful explanation of how dogs understand human speech and body language. (For anyone who has tried to train a dog using verbal language as well as body language, this chapter makes a lot of sense.)

Separate chapters are devoted to the messages conveyed by different parts of a dog’s body: the face, ears, eyes, tails, and total body. There are chapters on sex talk, scent talk, and a very important chapter on talking to cats. Each chapter clearly describes just what the dog is trying to convey using different parts of the body. Some body language is well known, such as a wagging tail or cringing, but others are frequently misinterpreted such as the baring of teeth.

Many people mistake cat language interpreting it in the same way they interpret dog messages. In fact dogs and cats frequently misinterpret each other’s signals. Where a wagging tail in a dog signifies happiness, a wagging tail in a cat signals “danger” or “watch out!” The pet owner who thinks their cat and dog are saying the same thing by a wagging tail can be in serious trouble.

An Appendix provides a very useful illustrated guide to Dogish that every dog owner should have.

A must-read early chapter, “A dog is listening,” discusses the way dogs hear and understand human talk. They learn, from constant repetition, what you mean by the different sounds you make. They learn which sound is their name, which means fun, and which means food. Like human babies they learn best when they have a kind and patient teacher rather than from harsh or punitive methods. Dogs respond best to a single word command that follows their name. Calling their name first gets their attention. The next word tells them what they are to do. Amazingly, dogs can learn a large number of words and some can recognize these words even when in a sentence. As Dr. Coren points out, many dogs can hear “walk” in the middle of a conversational sentence and head to the front door.

The next chapter discusses how dogs learn to read, understand and respond to human body language. Dogs learn to respond to human body language just as they learn to respond to the body language of other dogs. They learn the difference in our tone of voice, our posture, and our arm signals and so on. What is it that humans do that signals a threat to a dog? What is it that humans do that signals friendship and no threat? How we approach strange dogs, as well as our own, will make a significant difference in how they react to us.

Throughout the book, Dr. Coren cites the research on animal communication to help clarify language styles in different species. Our knowledge of the “languages” of animals has progressed way beyond the days when we believed that only humans had language and that is what differentiated humans from animals. Animals learn their own language in much the same way human babies learn theirs. The difference lies in the area of speech. Dr. Coren asks and answers the question: do animals have speech or do animals have language? This is a must-read book for people who want to communicate with their pet.