Dogs may be our best friends, but unlike our human buddies, they can’t tell us how they’re feeling over a glass of wine. Hounds rely primarily on body language and vocalizations to communicate with us and each other, and they have a lot to say. It’s on us, as owners, to learn how to listen.
Let’s unlock the secrets to understanding your dog.
A Dog’s Language
Just because dogs don’t speak doesn’t mean that they don’t have a language just as rich and complex as our own. As any dog owner can attest, our hounds have their own special way of letting us know how they’re feeling and what they need from us.
Too many owners make the mistake of thinking that dogs are similar to us in the way that they communicate. It’s vital to remember that dogs do not think like humans. They are very ‘in the moment’.
We can personify our pets just a little bit too much, forgetting that dogs often communicate on an instinctual level. They bark when they see a squirrel, not because they’re threatening it or sending a warning, but simply because that’s what dogs do.
We’ve been domesticating dogs for more than 10,000 years, but ultimately, they’re not far off from their wild counterparts. Even though they can understand humans to a degree, they prefer to communicate through other means.
While dogs can’t articulate their thoughts in human terms, they aren’t going to keep important ideas to themselves. Canines communicate through body language as well as vocalizations such as barking, growling, and whining.
Our dogs also communicate with us through facial expressions. Compared to wolves, domesticated dogs have additional facial muscles that allow them to give us the classic “puppy dog eyes” that have emptied many a treat bowl.
If you think about communication from your pup’s perspective, the two of you will be able to communicate more effectively. You’ll get more out of training and playtime, while your dog will know they can come to you with any concerns.
Learning how to understand your dog better will improve your bond with your best friend and help you to become a better owner.
Using the Body to Communicate
After millennia of evolution, dogs are best at communicating through body language. To understand your dog, you first need to understand how they use their bodies to speak with both us, and their canine companions.
Pay Attention to the Tail
Even brand new dog owners can tell you that a dog’s tail is a key part of its communication strategy. A wagging tail means a happy dog, and a tail tucked between the legs means that somebody’s feeling scared or anxious.
Of course, the real story can be much more complicated than people think. While the tail is important for communication, the signals a dog sends aren’t always so cut and dry. Plenty of unsuspecting people make the mistake of petting aggressive dogs with wagging tails.
While there are no hard and fast rules about tail language, there are a couple of ways that you can figure out what your dog is trying to tell you. Position and speed can both give you a clue as to how your best friend is feeling.
The position of your dog’s tail is one of the best indicators of happiness, agitation, or downright aggression.
Generally, a happy dog will hold their tail in a neutral or slightly raised position. Often, a dog’s tail will be wagging.
When your dog raises their tail and keeps it still, it means that they’re focused on something they consider a potential threat. Your pup is feeling agitated, and they’re preparing themselves to assert dominance. You may need to calm down a dog in this state, either removing them from the perceived threat, or by distraction.
If your dog holds their tail high but keeps it wagging, then your dog is still alert but not yet on edge. They don’t necessarily consider something in their vicinity to be a threat. Your pup may also be trying to avoid an altercation. If your dog does this around a stranger, it may be because they’re uncomfortable and don’t want to interact.
When the tail stands vertical or if it arches slightly, your dog may be feeling aggressive. This could be because of a real threat, or it could be because your pup doesn’t happen to trust the dog walking towards them. However, if your dog is feeling aggressive, there’s a higher risk of an attack or bite.
You should find a way to get them somewhere safe, calm, and isolated, away from the perceived or real threat.
A dog that’s feeling frightened or submissive will hold their tail down between its legs. Doing this is an instinctual move that helps to block their scent from potentially threatening dogs. A scared dog can turn into an aggressive dog quickly, so it’s a good idea to take them somewhere else, so they won’t feel overstimulated.
Tail speed isn’t quite as important as tail position when it comes to canine communication, but it can still tell you plenty about what your best mate is thinking.
As a general rule of thumb, a dog wags their tail faster the more excited they are. Some dogs whip their tails around so quickly that you may end up having to move trinkets and breakable items from the bottom shelves.
A dog that wags their tail just slightly is often apprehensive. They’re waiting to assess the situation before they figure out how to react. Dogs’ tails will often move like this when meeting a new person.
Once a dog is feeling more friendly, they will wag their tail more quickly and enthusiastically. When a dog puts their whole backside into it, you know that they’re having a good time.
An aggressive dog will often wag their tail very fast, albeit vertically instead of in a more neutral position. Always watch for this when strangers approach asking to pet your hound.
Ears: A Dog’s Smile
Ears are another key to understanding your dog’s language, though there can be stark differences between breeds due to ear shape and size. Dogs with large, floppy ears, such as beagles, may not be able to move them much and so will rely more on different body language to get their message across.
In general, ears should be in a neutral position. When your pup is feeling playful, they may flatten their ears just slightly to get your attention. It’s almost like the dog version of a smile.
Lowered ears held flat against the head are a sign of fear or anxiety. Ears raised straight up, on the other hand, indicate alertness or it can be a sign of aggression.
If your hound tilts their head slightly to one side, and moves their ears forward, they are trying to figure out what you want of them. This is also a sign that they’re waiting for an instruction from you.
Paying attention to your dog’s ears can help you figure out their emotional state and act accordingly. In combination with tail signals, they offer a fairly foolproof way to understand your dog better.
A Note on Docking and Cropping Surgeries
Docking is the surgical removal of the tip or whole of a dog’s tail, while ear cropping removes some or all of the ear flap. While these surgeries sometimes get performed for medical reasons, it’s often a cosmetic decision. This is cruel and unnecessary, and illegal in many places.
Most vets strongly recommend against docking and ear cropping unless medically necessary. It can impede a dog’s ability to use its two most important communication tools.
Domesticated dogs have evolved specifically to communicate with us by mimicking our facial expressions. While we sometimes tend to incorrectly personify our pets, sometimes, you can read a dog’s facial expressions very accurately.
If a dog stares you down, they’re challenging your role or defying an order. Herding dogs will also use this “stink eye” to keep their flocks in line.
Narrowed eyes usually mean that a dog is apprehensive or fearful, much like in humans. A dog in this state will often be looking for some reassurance through eye contact, or softly spoken words from you.
If your dog feels aggressive, stressed, or afraid for their life, their eyes will be large and round. You may see more white than usual. If your pup looks like this, you should take immediate steps to calm them, and remove them from the threat.
Gait and Posture
In addition to the tail and the ears, you may also see more subtle visual cues coming from your dog.
Their gait, for example, can tell you a lot about how a dog is feeling. If your pup is walking tall and with its head held high, it’s feeling confident, or even proud. A dog with a crouched, slinking walk, on the other hand, may feel submissive, or perhaps guilty if they think they’ve done something wrong.
Some dogs may use their paws to communicate with owners. A gentle tap may mean it’s time for treats and snuggles, while a rough shove might signify the end of playtime, or that playtime is getting out of hand because your hound is over-stimulated. This is an essential sign if your dog happens to be playing with children. The activity must stop then, or your dog may become stressed, and act aggressively.
While dogs mostly rely on body language to communicate, there are sometimes vocalizations that you can learn, to better understand your pet. Some breeds, such as huskies, are known for being much chattier than others, though most dogs will speak up if they are stressed or excited.
Dogs normally pant when they’re calm and happy, though it may be so light that you can’t hear it. When they’re excited or stimulated, they may pant slightly harder.
Panting is simply a way of getting oxygen into their system, and at times, cooling off after a bout of activity. Dogs can’t sweat the same way that we can, so panting is the only way to help dissipate extra heat during playtime.
If your dog is panting more heavily than usual, they may be telling you that they’re anxious or worried. Anxiety can be a common issue across all breeds.
Heavy panting may also indicate that something more serious is wrong. Dogs pant when they’re in pain, which could indicate trauma, infection, or illness. You also see heavy panting when dogs are overheating. Dogs die quickly from heat stress. Get them cooled down as quickly as possible, and call the vet out.
Whining tends to vary greatly from dog to dog, and it takes spending time with them to get used to their unique whines. Some breeds are more prone to whining than others.
Some dogs whine when they’re excited or overstimulated, such as when seeing a favorite friend or heading out the door on an adventure.
Other dogs, however, whine when they’re feeling stressed or anxious. Many dogs will also make a similar noise if they’re injured or uncomfortable.
Over time, you’ll learn to discern which of your dog’s whines are normal and which are cause for concern.
A small amount of barking is normal for most dogs. It’s their main method of communication with humans, and they know it. A dog can convey a lot of emotion in a bark, from a warning growl to a friendly greeting. Some dogs bark when they want to challenge you to play with them. If this is the case, they may also go down onto their front legs, with their butts in the air and their tail wagging.
Barks can come in a variety of pitches that mean different things. Higher-pitched barks often mean friendly intention, while lower-pitched barks can indicate aggression. The lower a bark, the more of a warning your dog intends to convey.
A yelp, while high-pitched, isn’t necessarily friendly. It’s a call for help if your dog gets injured, frightened, or facing a formidable foe.
Just about every dog owner knows the feeling of having their dog join in on a neighborhood howl, whether it’s started by a local dog or a passing fire truck. My dog howls when the phone rings.
Howling is primarily used between dogs to communicate. It’s a friendly noise that indicates they’re at ease with their pack.
Dogs rarely howl to communicate with humans, though they might sing along if you’re playing an instrument or belting out a tune. You should feel honored if your dog chooses to howl alongside you.
We expect dogs to pick up our language, so why not return the favor?
Unlike us, dogs predominantly speak using their body, though some do rely on facial expression and vocalization. Dogs are known to be able to learn human words. It just takes patience on our part, to teach them. No matter how many words they learn, English will always be their second language, though.
If you and your family work on understanding your dog, you’ll all enjoy a stronger, healthier bond.