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How Do Dogs Communicate?

If you chat to any dog owner, they’ll more than likely tell you that they spend hours talking to their dog… and they’re more than likely to swear that their dog actually understands what they’re saying.

Of course, there are differences in how people and pups communicate and, while we primarily turn to verbal communication to get our points across, dogs usually go for the non-verbal option and use body language first, vocalisations second.

Body language can encompass the use of their tail carriage and how they move it around (wagging, tucking between their legs, sticking straight up to signal alarm etc), as well as the position and movement of their body, the position of their eyes and ears, and their facial expressions.

By getting to know dog body language and improving your ability to recognise it, you’ll be able to work out far more effectively just what your pooch is trying to tell you.

Dogs vs People!

What’s most important when trying to read your dog is that you need to take into account their entire body, as well as the barks, whines and growls they make. 

It can be easy to misunderstand what your dog is trying to say if you focus on the verbal cues alone, but it’s also important to remember that some of the non-verbal cues directly contrast with what you might assume they mean.

Yawning is a classic example of where dogs and people differ. We yawn when we’re tired, but dogs do it to help deflect a potential threat and avoid conflict. Yawning is also a sign of stress, so this is something to be aware of as well.

Similarly, sneezing is another fun mode of communication. People sneeze when foreign matter like pollen, dust or dirt get into our nostrils, with the sneeze serving as our body’s first line of defence against bacteria. 

Interestingly, however, dogs also use sneezes as a way of letting other pups know that they’re playing or that they’re excited!

What about the tail?

The tail is perhaps what you would look to first in order to get the message from your dog, but just because their tail is moving doesn’t mean they’re happy. Take a look at what their ears are doing, if they’re in a crouching position, if their body is stiff… even if their tail is wagging to some extent, other signs may indicate that all is not well.

When your dog wags its tail, it simply means that they’re experiencing some kind of emotion, whether that’s excitement, happiness, frustration, stress, anxiety or something else. You have to take into account the speed and direction of the wag, as well as tail position, in order to interpret the message correctly.

Start to take note of what your dog is doing with its tail to see if you can determine what he’s trying to tell you. If he suddenly stops wagging his tail and holds himself still, it could be to divert a threat without coming across as aggressive. 

An aggressive attitude, meanwhile, is depicted by the tail held in a vertical position, or arching over the back. The higher the tail goes up, the bigger the perceived threat!

Don’t forget to look at posture

It can also be useful to learn how to read your dog’s posture and body position so you can better understand what they’re trying to say.

When dogs are stressed or afraid of something, you often see them start to cower or shrink lower to the ground, trying to make themselves look smaller. This is their way of saying that they don’t pose a threat. They can take this one step further by rolling over onto their back, showing their belly in a submissive pose.

One position you’ll likely be familiar with is the invitation, where they raise their haunches and position their tail up high. This indicates that they’re both relaxed and happy – and that they want to play!

A relaxed dog will also often have a slightly open and relaxed mouth, with head and ears in neutral, their eyes soft and their body loose. But a dog displaying aggressive signals may be stiff in the body, with wide eyes, curled lips and a wrinkled nose, with their teeth on show.

Getting to know the different types of communication can really help you protect yourself and your dog, ensuring that their needs are met and that you can respond to them quickly.

What is particularly important, however, is to remember that none of these verbal and non-verbal cues occur in isolation. There are lots of different signals that your dog will give you at any one time and you need to take them all into account in order to interpret their messages accurately.

As with anything, it will take a bit of time and practice, but it’s certainly worth doing as you’ll deepen your relationship with your dog and find life gets a lot easier for the two of you once you know what they’re trying to say.

If you’d like to find out more about dog communication or need some help with dog training in South London, get in touch with Sean Hyden today to see how he can help.