Dogs put a lot of effort into learning the language of humans. I’ve seen a dog place all of his toys back into a basket when he was told to ‘clean up,’ while another brought his owner a different colored leash when he was instructed to get ‘the other one.’ While they’ve made an effort to speak our language to the best of their ability, have you ever considered learning to speak theirs? Learning how to know what your dog is saying is something all dog owners should do. Dogs are mans best friend, but friendship only works when communication goes both ways.
When we think of a dog ‘speaking’ we imagine all the different barks and howls they’re capable of making, such as barking at the doorbell, whining to be let out, and of course, if you’re lucky enough, the police-siren sound they make when a first responder speeds by.
But their communication skills go well beyond their vocal cords. There’s a number of clues and cues dogs make to their owners through body movement, position and behavior. Sadly, they are often trying to communicate the opposite of what we think. Knowing the language of your dog will strengthen your shared bond and make your dog feel better understood.
There are two ways to know what your dog is saying. The first is through their body language and the second is through the sounds they make. Dogs can’t control their instincts, and body language is part of their instincts. For example, when a dog is nervous or scared they will tuck their tail and possibly whimper. If they are happy and excited they’ll wag their tail side to side and play growl or bark play bark at you. Once you learn these subtle clues, you’ll know exactly what your dog is trying to tell you.
Different Languages for Different Situations
We are going to split this article up into 3 parts.
- How to know what your dog is saying to another dog
- How to know what your dog is saying to you
- How to know what your dogs bark means
The reason we are splitting it up is because dogs don’t speak to you the same way they speak to other dogs. For example, your dog doesn’t go up to you and sniff your rear end like he would another dog! At least I sure hope that’s not the case…
How To Know What Your Dog is Saying to Another Dog
Below we will go over the most common things you’ll see your dog do when around another dog. If you ever take your dog to a doggie park, you’ll quickly notice quite a few of these. Knowing what your dog is communicating to another dog is important because it can help you understand if your dog is getting too aggressive with another dog, if they are scared and want to go home, or if they’re having a fun time playing with their friends.
Next time you take your dog to the park, be sure to look for some of these signs.
A relaxed and happy dog will have a gentle, fluid gait, as though they’re ‘prancing along’. Their mouth might be slightly open and it will almost look like they are smiling. If it’s a particularly warm day, or you’ve just taken him for a long run, his tongue might be hanging to one side. When he sees another dog, he might perk up a bit in anticipation of playing with a new friend.
When they meet one another, dogs tend to mimic body language. In the best of circumstances, they will lick noses, circle each other to get a good sniff, and wag their tails. Once they’ve been properly introduced, they will freeze slightly, put their paws out and bow. This is the signal that it’s time to play.
They will also raise their tail high in the air and do the full body tail wag that brings a smile to everyone’s face.
Trying To Submit
If one is seeking to submit the other, you might witness them lick the other’s muzzle or ears excessively, blink several times, and lower their head and ears. They will also have a relaxed tail or a tail that moves back and forth very slowly.
This is usually a non-confrontational exchange, but sometimes, when the dog is more fearful or wanting to submit to the other passively, they may lie down and roll over. If the other dog has been well socialized, they will reciprocate the signals and submit in return.
If rolling over isn’t enough to alleviate the situation, the concerned dog will yawn, sniff, scratch, or sneeze to hide what they’re really feeling, in hopes of refocusing attention away from them and onto the things they’re doing.
When a dog is pushed past his comfort level and switches to the defensive, there are still actions he can take to deescalate the situation before engaging the perceived danger.
When a dog’s ‘hair goes up on the back of its neck’ it’s called piloerection. This makes the dog look bigger than it actually is and also releases odor from the glands contained in the dog’s hair follicles.
He’ll lean forward into the danger, tense his mouth and might let out a low growl. A quick bark will serve the purpose of a vocal warning and will also remind the foe that he has a mouth full of sharp, strong teeth.
If a quick nip or air snap doesn’t do the trick, he might decide it’s time to take aggressive action. Biting and holding onto the dogs scruff will give your dog the advantage, as it will protect their own neck from being latched onto.
Hopefully this is all that’s needed to reestablish a social balance and end the hostility. Dogs rarely continue fighting once they feel a boundary has been put back in place. A safe dog is a happy dog.
How To Know What Your Dog is Saying to YOU
Now that you know what to look for when your dog is around another dog, let’s talk about what to look for when it’s just you and him.
Ideally, we want our dogs to be happy, relaxed companions, and most of the time that’s exactly what they are. When we’re alone with our dog, and the complexity of interacting with others at the dog park is no longer an issue, they will generally communicate through the wagging of their tail.
A tail wagging around like a helicopter from a wiggling bottom means everything is A-OK. They might be anticipating a treat, physical attention, or a good old fashioned game of fetch.
A dogs tail will wag more to the right when they see someone they like, whereas an unfamiliar person will get a tail wag more to the left. Dogs tire out well before their tails do. Even when they’re exhausted and lying on the ground, they will still assure you things are good by swishing that tail back and forth.
In any situation where a dog is feeling unsafe, he might turn to his owner to seek attention. Sometimes a big yawn is your dogs way of telling you he’s tuckered out, but it can also signal that his stress level is unusually high.
Facial expressions can include curved eyebrows, a tense jaw, panting, and twitching whiskers. His ears might be back and close to his head, and his tail may be tucked between his legs. A shaking dog will often seek out a hug from his owner or show the whites of his eyes. This is why eye contact is so crucial when reading dog body language, your dogs eyes tell a big story. A dog that whines and leans into you is probably saying it’s time to go.
Wants To Play
There are a couple ways to tell if your dog wants to play with you. The first way is to watch your dog as they walk toward you. If they are zig zagging back and forth as they are making their way to you, they’re letting you know they want to play.
Another way to tell is by them getting in “ready to play” position. This is where they dip the front of their body low and stick their behind up in the air. They’ll usually bark and move side to side in this position.
Whether it’s the zig zag walk or the “ready to play” position, your pup has a lot of energy they want to get out!
Need More Attention
We often get mad when our dogs chew up our shoes or destroy our pillows. When they express behavior like this, they aren’t intentionally trying to make us mad, so as pet owners we should do our best to hold in our anger. They are letting you know they have a lot of energy and need more toys or attention. If that’s the case, be sure to pay attention to them as often as you can.
Dogs Ears Tell All
You know the expression “wearing your heart on your sleeves”? Dogs tend to wear their hearts on their ears. Ears tell all. If they are perked up this means something caught their attention and they are curious. If they are flattened that means they are afraid of something or think they might be in trouble.
Dogs do the same thing most humans do when they are confused…tilt the head to the side. However, they are doing it for a different reason than us. Dogs have incredible hearing so when they hear something that confuses them, they tilt their head so they can hear the sound better.
We talked about how yawning can be a sign of fear or stress (or that they’re exhausted). Yawning and licking the lips or nose can also mean they’re feeling insecure. Dogs don’t like change so when big changes are going on, they might be feeling insecure and not sure if you’re going to keep them around.
Wanting to Explore
When you take your dog on a walk you’ve probably seen them hold their head up high with their nose in the air. They are trying to smell everything around them and letting you know they want to explore the world around them.
Need to Cool Down
When dogs pant, we always assume that means they’re tired and out of breath, but that’s not always the case. When we get hot we sweat which helps cool us down. Dogs can’t sweat, so to help regulate body temperature they pant. If your dog is panting that’s their way of cooling off. You can always help by bringing a fan near them and pouring them some cold water.
How to Know What Your Dog is Saying With Their Bark
There are two ways dogs communicate. First is through their body language (which we have already covered). Second is through their bark (verbal cues). Most dogs have very similar body language to express what they need. However, things get a little trickier when it comes to the bark. Some breeds will naturally bark quite a bit. Other breeds won’t bark at all.
Below we will go over some of the common types of barks and let you know what they typically mean…but remember, the meaning can vary from dog to dog so take the time to learn the barks of your dog.
When a dog yelps, it almost always means they are hurting. It’s the same as us screaming when we are hurt. If it’s just a one time high pitch yelp it’s nothing to be too concerned about. They might have just stepped on something that hurt or pinched their skin. However, if it’s a series of yelps that means they are in really bad pain and want your help.
If your dog is continuously barking with no break in between, they’re calling for back up. This usually means they feel like someone uninvited has come into their territory and they don’t like it.
Prolonged Barking With Multiple Breaks
When a dog barks about 5 or 6 times and then takes a break for a minute or two, they are just asking if anyone is there. Dogs are pack animals so they don’t like being alone. They’ll use their bark to ask if anyone is around, wait a few minutes and then do it again.
Aggressive Single Bark
This means someone or something (another dog for example) is doing something they don’t like. That aggressive single bark is them saying “stop that!”
Soft Half Bark
Have you ever heard a dog barley bark? Almost like a mix of a growl and a bark. This usually means they are asking you to play. It becomes obvious if they do this while zig zagging their way to you while wagging their tail.
Some dogs that want to play will do a playful growl. However, some growl because they are angry and ready to attack. A dog that is growling because they are ready to attack will expose their teeth, this is one of the biggest signs of aggression in dogs. Be sure to carefully analyze everything and safely calm your dog.
The more you can get to know your dog, the happier life will be for both of you. Even when they exercise free will and decide which commands they’ll be obeying that day, a dog will never stop trying to learn and understand what you’re saying. All they want is to make you happy.
While every dog is different, learning to read basic dog behavior should have you and your pup well on the way to deeper conversations about the meaning of life. Or at least what’s being served for dinner that night.
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