A young Asian girl nuzzles noses with a tabby kittenA young Asian girl nuzzles noses with a tabby kittenA young Asian girl nuzzles noses with a tabby kitten
Barks & Mewsings

The Trupanion blog

How Do Dogs Communicate?

By: Brianna Gunter

Two brown dogs sit together at a table.

Ever look at your dog and wonder what she’d say if she could talk? As it turns out, dogs already have their own way of communicating with humans and other dogs—pet owners just need to learn how to listen. To learn more about dogs’ unique way of communicating, we spoke with Trupanion veterinarian Dr. Caroline Wilde about canine signals and body language to watch for.

Canine communication: the basics

Your buddy may not be able to use words, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t actively “talking” through his everyday mannerisms. While humans prioritize vocalizations and use body language as secondary communication, the opposite is true for canines.

“Dogs communicate with visual cues such as body posture, head position, ear position, tail, and even hair,” Wilde explains. “As well as through vocalization, like barking or growling.”

Wilde also notes that dogs may do things like bark or wag their tails for a number of different reasons, both positive and negative. So, it’s important to take stock of the entire situation to determine whether your pup is stressed or just playing.

Five kinds of canine communication

Humans have been trying to decipher canine behavior for centuries. In 1872, for example, Charles Darwin wrote about dogs using body positioning to express emotion.

More recently, however, researchers from the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University categorized dog communication and body language in five distinctive categories:

  1. Aggressive—A dog that feels threatened may become aggressive. Look for bared teeth, curled lips, and/or a tense body posture overall. Vocalizations like growing, barking, or even snapping in the air may result if the dog feels further threatened or is approached.
  2. Anxious—Stressed / anxious dogs may appear to be pacing or unfocused, with increased breathing. They may also whine. Like humans, dogs can experience many different levels of stress, so this body language more be more subtle at times.
  3. Arousal/Excitement—Dogs who are favorably excited (such as in the presence of a toy) appear playful and alert. The tail wags or may be held straight out, and eyes are wide and focused. They may jump or crouch forward, as though ready to pounce. Unfavorably excited dogs (scared or annoyed) will display fearful and/or anxious body language in addition to arousal behavior.
  4. Fearful—Dogs tend to react with their entire bodies to fear stimuli. Ears may appear low or tight, and they may lick or smack their lips, or even yawn. The body may cower or tremble, and the tail may be tucked inward. Eye contact may be avoided. Fearful behavior may quickly switch to aggressive if provoked.
  5. Relaxed—Relaxed dogs are happy and content! The mouth may be relaxed and held slightly open, tongue protruding. The body appears limber and loose, with ears in a neutral position. Tail may wag.

How dogs communicate with each other

Two chocolate lab dogs face each other in communication

How do you know what your pal is trying to say to his buddies, or that dog he just met in the park? Wilde points out several signs to look for when your dog is interacting with other pets:

  • Rear sniffing—the classic greeting between “polite” dogs.
  • Tail wagging—while often a happy indicator, it could also be a sign of stress.
  • Front legs lowered—a “bow” is usually an invitation to play.
  • Rolling over—a dog exposing its belly to another is yielding / being submissive.
  • Eye contact—between dogs, this is often a sign of aggression.

It’s always important to monitor dog interactions with each other, but this becomes even more crucial when other kinds of pets are involved. After all, Fluffy the cat may not appreciate it when Fido barks at her, even if the message is intended to be playful.

How dogs communicate with humans

Just as you gradually get used to your dog’s mannerisms during your time together, your four-legged friend learns she can interact with you in subtly different ways than with other animals. For instance, exposing her belly may be a sign of submission to fellow canines, but for you it could just be a direct request for a belly rub.

It’s also worth noting that certain people behaviors just don’t translate into “dog language.” Simply yelling at your pal when she’s been a bad girl is more likely to confuse her rather than tell her she’s done something wrong (positive reinforcement is a much more effective dog training tactic). And while eye contact may be viewed as polite and personable in the human world, locking eyes with your dog for long stares could be taken as a sign of hostility.

Socialization is key

Whether you have multiple pets or just want to have a nice time at the dog park, your four-legged friend should be able to interact nicely with others. She already comes equipped with instinctive communication skills, but these will only develop positively through socialization with other dogs.

Wilde offers the following tips for pet owners looking to socialize their dogs:

  • Dog’s socialization should begin as early as possible, (socialization for puppies should generally take place between 3 and 14 weeks).
  • Ask your veterinarian about vaccinations your dog needs prior to interacting with other pets and whether it’s safe for your particular dog.
  • Look for local puppy play sessions (often hosted by veterinary practices and doggy day care centers).
  • Watch your dog for signs of anxiety during socialization, like yawning, lip smacking, or other key behavioral cues.
  • When noticing signs of trouble, swiftly (but calmly) redirect your dog’s attention or remove them from the situation to avoid potential conflict.

Why understanding canine communication is important

Communication is important for your furry friend’s wellbeing and safety. For example, a dog trying to express that they need some space can quickly become stressed or prone to aggression if they are misunderstood.

“Understanding how dogs communicate can help prevent inter-dog aggression, incidents with humans, and improve the dog-human bond,” Wilde says. “By understanding what your dog is trying to tell you and other dogs, you may help your dog feel more comfortable and lessen anxiety.”

Some dogs may take some time to get used to new animals and people, much less learn to communicate properly. Try slow introductions, and stay nearby where your dog can see you. Don’t force things either—if your dog is acting aggressively and communicating signs of anger or high stress, it’s time for them to be alone.

What if none of this sounds like my dog?

A white dog lays on a rug with a yellow toy

Just as humans do not all talk or gesture in the same manner, your dog may have her own unique way of communication. Dogs are individuals, and yours may respond differently to meeting a new person or new furry family member. Even if you’ve had other dogs before, every pet has their own unique way of communication, and it takes time for pets to understand and learn each other’s personal cues.

Go slowly, and consult with your veterinarian about your pup’s behavior. With enough time and patience, your dog may become a great communicator you are very in sync with.

Want to learn more about your buddy’s behavior? Check out 5 Signs Your Dog Loves You.

A dog and cat snuggle

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Welcome to the Trupanion blog. A place to celebrate pets, pet health and medical insurance for cats and dogs.

This blog is designed to be a community where pet owners can learn and share. The views expressed in each post are the opinion of the author and not necessarily endorsed by Trupanion. Always consult your veterinarian for professional advice.

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