Understanding Your Dog
Dog communication refers to body movements and sounds dogs use to send signals to other dogs, and other animals (usually humans). Dog communication comes in a variety of forms. Dogs use certain movements of their bodies and body parts and different vocalizations to send signals. There are a number of basic ways a dog can communicate. These are movements of the ears, eyes and eyebrows, mouth, head, tail, and entire body, as well as barks, growls, whines and whimpers, and howls.
Interpreting animal body language
It is important to note that while many gestures and actions have common, stereotypical meanings, researchers regularly seem to find that animal communication is often more complex and subtle than previously believed, and that the same gesture may have multiple distinct meanings depending on context and other behaviors. So, generalizations such as "X means Y" are often, but not always accurate. For example, even a simple tail wag may (depending on context) convey many meanings including:
• Happy, self-confidence
• Questioning another animal or a human as to intentions
• Tentative role assessment on meeting another animal
• Reassurance ("I'm friendly, are you?")
• Reconciliation (after an aggressive interaction: "I still want to be friends")
• Submissive placation
Combined with other body language, in a specific context, many gestures such as yawns and direction of vision all convey meaning. Panting may mean "Too hot"; it might also mean either emotional anxiety or happiness. Thus statements that a particular action "means" something should always be interpreted to mean "often means" something. As with human beings, who may smile or hug or stand a particular way for multiple reasons, many animals reuse gestures too.
Descriptions in this article are therefore best viewed as common generalizations, to which a more experienced observer will be able to add further detail or understanding.
Dominance and submission
Dominance only occurs when resources like food and space are limited. Therefore dominance can be displayed in canines that are in captivity. In the wild dominance is rare; the most suited one will become the "pack leader".
How high or low the tail is held, in relation to how the dog's breed naturally carries their tail, and how it is moved can signify the dog's mood. When the tail is held high, shows that the dog is alert; Tail between the legs means that the dog is afraid. If the fur on the tail is also bristled, the dog is saying they are willing to defend.
Small, slow wags of the tail says the dog is questioning things around them. Either they aren't sure if the target dog or person is friendly, or they aren't sure what is going on or what is expected of them.
Large, fast wags of the tail is a sign of a happy or excited dog. If the wags are large enough to pull the dog's hips with them, the message includes a bit of submission to someone they view as pack leader.
Dogs with docked tails, like Dobermans, tend to have some problems communicating with other dogs, since their tail movements are extremely difficult to detect. Dogs with docked tails will usually compensate for this by wagging their entire rear end.
Left-right asymmetry of the tail wags is likely to also convey information along the approach/avoidance axis.
Aggressive / violent
When dogs show their teeth or fangs, it is a sign of violence, or aggression. Dogs show their teeth to warn someone that if they come closer, the dog will attack for defensive reasons.
But many dogs will "smile" showing teeth when they are expressing signs of submissiveness. A smile is different from a snarl in several ways. One of the main differences is how many teeth are showing. A submissive smile shows only the front teeth while aggression is shown by most of the dog's teeth. An aggressive dog will show not only their front teeth, but the back ones as well. The dog's gums could also be shown.
Actually dogs can show all teeth and still be a submissive grin, the whole body language needs to be taken into account.
Ear position relates the dog's level of attention, and reaction, to a situation or animal. Erect ears facing forward means the dog is very attentive, while ears laid back suggests a negative, usually fearful or a timid reaction. They also lay their ears back for the sounds surrounding them. Dogs with drop ears, like Beagles, can't use these signals very well, as the signals first developed in wolves, whose ears are pricked. Wolf-like dogs will, when content and happy, often hold their ears in a horizontal position but still forward. This has been referred to as the "wolf smile".
Mouth expressions can provide information about the dog's mood. When a dog wants to be left alone, it might yawn (although yawning also might indicate sleepiness, confusion, or stress) or start licking its mouth without the presence of any food. When a dog is happy or wants to play, it might pant with lips relaxed, covering the teeth and with what sometimes appears to be a happy expression (it might appear as a smile to some observers) or with the mouth open. Mouth expressions that indicate aggression include the snarl, with lips retracting to expose the teeth, although some dogs also use this during play.
- Destructive Chewing
- Feces Eating in Dogs
- Food Guarding
- Jumping Up
- Mouthing and Nipping
- Object Guarding
- Problem Digging
- Urine Marking
- Crate Training
- House Training
- Leash Training
- Sit Training
- Teaching Eye Contact
- Dog Communication
- Teaching Your Dog to Come
- Clicker Training
- Training Equipment
Keeping Your Dog Happy:
- Backyard Etiquette
- Breed-Based Activities
- Physical And Mental Stimulation
- Separation Anxiety
Getting Another Pet:
- Introducing A New Dog to Your Cat
- Getting Another Dog
For Puppy Parents:
- Preparing for A New Puppy
- Puppy Socialization
- Canine Adolescence
- Dog Trainers & Behaviorists
- Pushy Dogs
- Dog Aggression
- Simple Solutions for Common Problems
It's important to look at the dog's whole body and not just the mouth or tail before deciding what the dog is trying to communicate. What appears initially as aggression might be an invitation to play, or vice-versa.
Eyes and eyebrows
While dogs don't have actual eyebrows, they do have a distinctive ridge above their eyes, and some breeds, like the Rottweiler and the German Shepherd, have markings there. A dog's eyebrow movements usually express a similar emotion to that of a human's eyebrow movements. Raised eyebrows suggest interest, lowered brows suggest confusion or mild anger, and one eyebrow up suggests bewilderment. Slitted eyes translate the same as human's also: suspicion or anger.
Although a dog's feet cannot manipulate like human hands, a person can use them as an avenue of communication. A dog might stamp its feet, alternating its left and right front legs, while its back legs are still. This occurs when the dog is excited, wants something, or wants its owner's attention. Pointers tend to tuck one front leg up, when they sense game nearby. This behavior might not be communication so much as the dog freezing mid-step as a result of its instinct telling it to immediately become still. It is also common for dogs to paw or scratch for objects they desire. Many dogs are trained to mimic a human handshake, offering a paw to a human stooping down and offering their own hand in exchange.
The leaning of a dog's head to the right or to the left often indicates curiosity and/or a sound it has not heard before. This, however, may also be a sign of recognition to a familiar word, or even that the dog is trying to understand a word or situation. It is very common in some breeds, such as pugs.
If the dog's head is held high with its neck craning forward, it is showing interest. Although it could also mean a challenge if other body language is present.
Dogs bark for many reasons, such as when perceived intruders (humans, dogs, or other animals) approach its territory, for identification, when hearing an unfamiliar or unidentified noise, when seeing something that the dog doesn't expect to be there, or when playing. Barking also expresses different emotions for a dog, such as loneliness, fear, suspicion, stress, and pleasure. Play or excited barks are often short and sharp, such as when a dog is attempting to get a person or another dog to play.
Dogs generally try to avoid conflict; their vocalizations are part of what communicates to other dogs whether they mean harm or are in a playful mood.
The bark of a distressed or stressed dog is high pitched, repetitive, and atonal; it tends to get higher in pitch as the dog becomes more upset. For example, a dog left home alone and who has separation anxiety might bark in such a way.
Some research has suggested that dogs have separate barks for different animals, including dog, fox, deer, human, squirrel and cat.
Growls can be used to threaten and to invite play. Growling should be watched with special attention because it can indicate aggression. A soft, low-pitched growl often indicates aggression; the dog may feel threatened and may be provoked to attack. An intense growl, without showing any teeth, may often indicate a playful attitude. Always consider the context of a growl, and exercise caution.
Howling provides long-range communication with other dogs or owners. Howling can be used to locate another pack member, to keep strangers away, or to call the pack for hunting. Dogs howl as a sign of separation anxiety like when a dog is away from their owner or trying to find their owner in their home. Dogs also howl to say "here I am" and to find their family, as in the wolves history.
Though the phenomenon is often undiscussed, some dogs may try to repeat human speech sounds, or are trained to do so. This kind of vocalization does not have a set meaning, and is unique to its situation. Recent examples have included a talking pug on the Late Show with David Letterman. A Hungarian Vizsla was also trained to speak a few words. The Vizsla can say "Food", "Help", and "Play" although these words often sound a little bit garbled and are sometimes hard to understand. This does not appear to be limited to any particular breed.