Is Language Ruining Our Ability To Communicate?

We talk too damn much. Really……. That’s the point of this article.

I have two main interests. Dogs, and Martial Arts/Self-Defense. These seem ridiculously unrelated on the surface…. But, in reality, they aren’t. I’ll explain:

This is how I think animal communication goes. And yes…. Humans are animals.

1. Calming/Avoidance Signals

2.  Stillness

3. Pressure

4. Sound

5. Touch

6. Attack

It goes in that order as a continuum, unless the situation warrants jumping to a higher spot on the ladder.

Now, I’m clearly, only talking about the “conflict” aspect of communication. Because, when your goals are aligned, there’s no “need” for “good” communication. It’s like if you and someone else are both zealots of a certain political bent, you don’t have to have amazing communication to convince them of which way they should vote. But….. If you are of opposing viewpoints, and you want to change their position…… You’d better have some damn good communication!

Our problem is that we’ve become so specialized in language, that we’ve become dependent on it. Which is fine, if  you’re dealing with linguaphiles. But….. If you are dealing with a being that either doesn’t know language, doesn’t know your language, or is not “able” to be “civilized”…… You can’t afford to not have the rest of the continuum.

How does this effect our two subjects:

Self Defense:

Inexperienced people, will use calming signals like look aways, nervous laughs, hands up palms out, etc…. And if that doesn’t work, they go right to “Sound” and try to talk their way out of it. They just JUMP two ahead. If THAT doesn’t work…… They’re screwed. The likely hood that it will work is low, as prematurely running up the ladder is a sign of fear. Fear draws aggression. And when they ignore your “Sound”, and become more aggressive…… Most people have ZERO experience dealing with the “Touch” and “Attack” end of the continuum, so they are ineffective…… Or worse…… don’t even try. All just because they only have 2 of the 6 rungs on the ladder.

To fix this, you have to learn human body language to fill in the gaps in the “Stillness”, and “Pressure” categories. And, learn Brazilian JiuJitsu to take care of the “Touch”, and “Attack” categories. They are BOTH important! If you can fight well, you’re fine if you end up all the way at the end of the continuum……. But without the understanding of body language, you’re gonna start the whole process further up the ladder than is necessary. And it’s a damn slippery slope. The higher up the ladder you go, the more emotion there is. The more emotion there is, the more likely you are to escalate. A full understanding. of the ENTIRE continuum reduces your chances of conflict. Remember that….. You’ll see it again.


If you think people have a bad understanding of human body language, they have even less of canine body language! When dogs see us, they see a being who doesn’t communicate well at all. We ignore all the communication under level 4. We also only communicate at level 4 and above. To them we must seem like the body language version of “hard of hearing”. Here’s a typical example; you disapprove of something they’re doing…. With absolutely no “warning”, we say “NO” (“sound”), and if that doesn’t work, we punish (“Touch”) them. Hell, the only time we use anything less than level 4 with dogs, is when it’s a complete accident. Here’s the typical example of that; we want to approach a dog, but we don’t know how they’ll react. So we throw ZERO “calming signals”, cause we don’t understand canine versions of them. Then we stand still so we don’t scare them, accidentally throwing an escalation signal (“stillness”). Then, we walk straight at them (“pressure”), and bend over the top of them to pet them (more “pressure”). They don’t like any of this and we are rifling up the ladder. So, in an attempt to get ahead of us, they growl (“sound”), and we top them with yelling (more “sound”), or worse a correction (“touch”), and the only way the top us is with an “Attack”. This exact example happens damn near daily. It’s not an exaggeration.

And that’s not the only way it affects our life with dogs. They learn not to trust us. See, dogs throw levels 1-3 CONSTANTLY. To them, we just don’t seem to care. This seems small, but can lead to pretty significant problems. Here’s an example; Some ill mannered person (read above example) approaches you and your dog. If you knew anything, you could read all the signals of discomfort your dog is throwing, and ask them to stop. But, you don’t, so you didn’t, so they get bit.

And creating problems out in the world isn’t even the main problem. Dogs are pack animals. And most of them don’t really want the burden of being of being “Pack Leader” (yes I know that a played out term, but it works so shut up). But you leave them no choice. You don’t look like you’re listening to them, or are willing to address their concerns…… So, they say “fine” and handle business themselves. Look, I’m not saying that all problems are caused by “Pack Leadership” confusion. Sometimes, the problem is that you’ve trained them to be little extremists. They learn that you don’t pay attention to anything under level 4….. So EVERYTHING is level 4 and up. Like I said before….. A full understanding. of the ENTIRE continuum reduces your chances of conflict. Both between you and them, and them and the rest of the world!

Great, now that I’ve told how bad you are at everything…… What are you supposed to do about it?

1. Whichever one you’re interested in Dogs, or Self-Defense….. Study the body language of that species. Clearly, if you look at the links above, that’s doesn’t take a lot of digging. This is also one of the only times I recommend TV for anything. There are a million “dog” shows on TV showing “problematic” dogs. STUDY the dogs. IGNORE the commentary, and the leading music. Literally study the dogs. See if you can see the continuum unfold. For people study….. Watch movies. Actors are fake, but they are masters of creating effect. Turn of the volume, and see if you can see the body language play out. Yes…. I probably have too much time on my hands.

2- Spend some sessions working UNDER level 4. As in no touch, or sound. Get, your dog….. Or a willing (very patient) person…… And try to get them to do something that they have NEVER done before without using ANY language (including gestures, and mimicry), or touch . The action can be standing on a chair, or making a certain gesture. Nothing TOO crazy. But, you’ll be surprised at how freaking hard it is. A dog trainer I worked with once made me do this with a person, to get a better understanding of “Marker” training. It’s kind of like the “colder/warmer” game when you were a kid. It’s crazy challenging and will show you just how hamstrung we are by this gift of language we have.

3- Learning “touch” and above, you should really seek help from a professional. A dog trainer can show you how, when it’s utterly unavoidable, to correct (“touch”) properly.

And a martial arts instructor (preferably BJJ. Preferably me) can show you how to put hands on a human, if you blew every other part of the continuum.

Anyway, to sum it up…….

To get better at communicating with dogs, OR people.

Shut your mouth.

Comments 3

  1. paulandmuttley

    I have Turid Rugaas’s book on Calming Signals, and I thought it was pretty good but incomplete, and she agreed. Some people (especially “pure positive” types) seem to think all of these calming signals indicate fear and stress, but I think they are often just default non-verbal communication attempts with the emphasis on a peaceable and respectful intention, as opposed to a warning. I like the way you have added higher levels of intensity which are more like warnings which escalate to action (attack). Someone once criticized my video of Muttley with the GNORP collar (reverse prong), saying he was showing all sorts of “calming signals” indicating stress and fear. But all I saw was him yawning and licking his lips and scratching and looking away, as just indications that this was OK with him and that he trusted me.

    1. 3badbullies

      Very cool that you actually discussed your understanding of her book with her, herself. I don’t think that dogs, or people, are in fear every time they throw calming signals. They are ingrained, natural movements. That’s why we use them. We (subconsciously of course) are trying to “play it off” like everything is still “normal”, in the hopes that the situation will STAY normal. So, it’s hard to tell when they “mean” something. It’s like the “Lie To Me” type of lie detections micro expressions. Sometimes, when you touch your mouth while you’re talking it’s because you’re lying, and you want to cover your mouth subconsciously as the source of the lie. And, sometimes….. your lip just itched. It all about context.

  2. lisa

    “shut your mouth” is fantastic advice(in just about any situation-dog or no dog).
    I also find, “listen with your eyes” a helpful strategy w/ dogs(and life in general).
    it’s a beautiful thing how quiet dogs really are in their communication- and only get louder as they get higher up the 6 rung ladder you came up with. Nice breakdown, btw, thanks for sharing.
    and I am going to try getting my dog to do something new, using only under 4- great indoor activity ‘cos of all this dumbass snow!

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