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Dog Communication - Level 1

From Dog Barks to Tail Wags

How to understand your dog's language and effectively communicate with your voice inflection, tone and gestures.
By Lisa Hanks

“How do you know what a dog’s thinking?” asks Bonnie Beaver, D.V.M. and animal behaviorist. “I don’t even know what you’re thinking and you can talk, so I can at least ask you. I can’t ask a dog.”

A dog owner’s first mistake is trying to interpret his or her dog’s behaviors from a human perspective. “People try to anthropomorphize; they assign human values and feelings to their dogs and other animals,” Beaver adds. “That’s usually not accurate. They are not four-legged people. Dogs are a unique species with their own values and thoughts.”

It’s an intricate puzzle that can be tricky even for canine experts to decipher. “With dog body language, you can’t read a piece here and a piece there and make a conclusion,” Beaver explains.

To make this puzzle more complicated, every dog is different. Depending on your dog’s breed, age, personality, upbringing, training and level of socialization, his communication signals might differ significantly from other dogs.

Needless to say, much of the canine body language is misinterpreted. Perhaps the most misunderstood canine signal is a wagging tail.

People often assume that a dog is friendly because he wags his tail. Well, yes and no. Sometimes the dog is friendly; but if the dog is stiff with his mouth closed, it may be a sign of aggression or concern.

“A tail wag is much like our human smile,” says Patricia McConnell, a certified applied animal behaviorist and trainer in Black Earth, Wisconsin. “We can smile when we’re not very happy. We can smile when we’re nervous, and we can smile when we don’t like somebody. It’s that unfriendly, hostile smile; we all know what it looks like.”

To help you begin to unlock the meaning behind your dog’s actions, here are a few general guidelines.

Think like a wolf?
Some people believe that because dogs are domesticated wolves, we can learn the wolf’s behavioral patterns and pack communication system and apply them directly to dogs. Undeniably, dogs are descended from wolves, but research has found that there are parallels and differences between wolf behavior and the modern dog.

For instance, dogs bark a lot; wolves rarely do.

“If you look at the individual behaviors, at least 80 percent of the behaviors of a wolf are replicated in dogs,” McConnell says. “But it’s important to realize that dogs aren’t wolves. There’s a reason wolves aren’t allowed in obedience classes. It’s helpful to look at wolf behavior, but you can’t fully understand dogs just by looking at wolf behavior.”

For wolves, a strong, close-knit pack is crucial to the health and longevity of the pack members. Lone wolves are much more likely to be killed, and most wolves feel compelled to be part of a pack. To maintain the pack order, a complex social system of dominant and submissive wolves develops.

Each four- to 20-member wolf pack has an alpha male and an alpha female at the top, which make most of the important decisions for the pack, such as when and where to hunt. These dominant wolves generally are the only ones to procreate, which means most of the pack is related to each other. Typically, the alphas are bigger, stronger, smarter and older than the rest of the pack — but not always.

Who is dominant and who is submissive in the pack hierarchy is made clear via a system of canine communications and body signals; therefore, actual fighting is rare. For instance, a dominant wolf would stand tall with his tail high and stare directly at a submissive wolf, which would crouch, tuck his tail low, look away and might paw at or lick the muzzle of the other wolf.

“A big difference between wolves and dogs is the whole issue of status and dominance,” McConnell explains. “Wolves are very status conscious. Every second, they’re conscious of who’s who in the hierarchy. Dogs are less status-conscious than wolves. It varies more with individuals. Some dogs couldn’t care less, and others are deeply concerned with status-related issues.”

Think like a dog
Consider a wolf pack to be a broad guide to dog behavior, but remember: Due to their many years of domestication, dogs have developed a different slant on their wolfish tendencies. “By domesticating the dog, we’ve made major changes,” Beaver says. “The further the dog is from appearing like a wolf, the further it is from it genetically, so we have more variation. If you’re talking about Yorkies and Chihuahuas and that type of dog, they can be very, very different.”

In fact, some have compared dog behavior to that of young wolves. “Researcher Raymond Coppinger talks about the dog as a perpetual wolf cub (“Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution” [University of Chicago Press, 2002]),” Beaver says. “In other words, we stopped dog development at a cub stage. It’s not 100 percent accurate, but some factors hold true.”

A dog’s survival isn’t in constant jeopardy like a wolf in the wild, so he doesn’t need to adopt the wolf’s rigorous pack system. However, dogs are still pack-oriented animals, and for many, separation from their pack is perceived to be a traumatic, possibly life-threatening, situation.

Your dog’s definition of a pack can be highly flexible. His pack members might include you, your spouse, roommates, other family members, other dogs and other household pets — or it might not, depending on the dog. And the dog may or may not see the humans in the household as his leaders.

A dog has four basic, instinctual reaction modes: prey, pack, fight or flight.

  1. Prey drive includes hunting and food-gathering behaviors, such as stalking moving objects, stealing and stashing food, and catching and “killing” toys.

  2. Pack drive determines a dog’s social needs. A highly social dog needs lots of interaction with people and other dogs, including petting, grooming and playtime.

  3. A high fight drive dog is extremely confident and will stand fast; he tends to be dominant. In addition to protecting his family and territory, the dog may also guard toys, food and other valuable resources. 

  4. A high flight drive is at the other end of the scale, which means the dog has little confidence and doesn’t handle new experiences with aplomb; he tends to be submissive. He may hide behind his person and dribble urine in scary or unfamiliar situations.

Each dog shows distinct and varying levels of these four drives, and frequently switches back and forth depending on the situation. Some breeds naturally show more of one drive than another. For instance, Border Collies generally have a strong prey drive, which helps them herd, while Bichons Frise have a strong pack drive, which makes them want to be with people. An experienced trainer can help you determine which drives your dog exhibits and develop the best training methods for him.

Dominance and submission
Dogs tend to be either dominant or submissive, but they also change from one to the other, according to the situation and the dog’s relationship with the other person or dog. Whether a dog is feeling dominant or submissive plays a big role in how he will react to you and his environment.

Here are some tips for reading your dog. Keep in mind, though, these are complex behaviors that vary from dog to dog. In addition, dogs act differently toward other dogs than they do toward people.

Dominance/Confidence: A dominant dog stands tall with his head and tail up looking directly at you. His tail may be stiff and straight or moving slowly from side to side. The ears may be pricked or relaxed, and his hackles might be raised. (Hackles are the hair on the back of his neck, the top of the shoulders and right above where the tail meets the torso.)

Other dominant signs include standing over another dog, placing a chin or paw over another dog’s shoulders, allowing another dog to lick his lips or to sniff it. At times, mounting is a dominant behavior, too.

Submissive: “A submissive dog wants to lower himself,” McConnell says. “He lowers his head and tail and his whole body, if he can. He often turns sideways, too.” His ears may be down or pulled against his head, and his eyes might be narrowed or wide open showing the whites (whale eye).

Other submissive behaviors include lifting a paw, face nuzzling, licking at the dominant dog’s muzzle, allowing other dogs to stand over him or place a chin or paw on top of his shoulders. A submissive dog will also roll on his back while moving his head away from the dominant dog and tucking his tail in. He may urinate slightly (submissive urination) or release his anal scent glands, as well.

Fear vs. happiness
In general, you can tell if a dog is relaxed or tense, even from a distance. “You can tell a lot from the overall look of the dog,” McConnell says. “If a dog’s body is loose and flexible and sorta wiggly, that’s usually a happy, relaxed dog. Any time a dog is stiff, very stiff, even if the tail is wagging, that’s not a comfortable dog. He’s not friendly.”

According to McConnell, dogs do show some strong emotions, some of which are similar to our own, but not exactly the same. The strongest one is fear, but the dog might also show a type of happiness.

Fearful/Concerned: A fearful dog will stand tensely with his head and rear end lowered, legs bent, his back arched, and his tail down or tucked under his body. His ears may be folded all or part way against his head. The tail typically will move with a frenzied beat. The dog usually will turn his head and look away but may also peer at the scary thing, sometimes showing the whites of his eyes. He may also flick his tongue forward just a bit.

A frightened dog will typically back away, growl and bark at whatever has frightened him as a stay-away warning. Pay close attention to such body language and warnings. If approached or threatened, this dog may snap at you, especially if he believes he has no escape route or if he’s leashed. Staring is considered a threat, so observe a frightened dog out of the corner of your eye instead.

Happiness/Contentment: A happy dog shows a soft, relaxed mouth, perhaps partly open, with the teeth unexposed. His ears are perked up with wide, sparkling, alert eyes. His rear end typically wiggles, sometimes as far up as the shoulders. The tail is usually elevated or standing out from the body and wagging. The dog may whimper, yip or let out brief, high barks in excitement.

“When dogs are happy, they have this great expression. It’s very much like our expression of happiness, if you look at it carefully,” McConnell says. In her book “For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend” (Ballantine Books, 2006), she shows illustrations of happy dogs and happy people next to each other. “It’s amazing how similar they look,” she says.

Playfulness vs. alertness
Other common body postures of dogs include playfulness and alertness.

Playfulness: Dogs have clear signals that indicate they want to play, which helps differentiate between actual aggression and hunting, versus play-fighting and fun.

The most obvious sign is a play-bow: The dog’s rear end is in the air with the tail up and wagging, and his front elbows are on the ground.

His ears are up and forward, his eyes are relaxed and his mouth is slightly open with the lips relaxed (little to no teeth showing). A playful dog may also bounce up and down, and run forward and back, circling around you.

Dogs playing together are usually loose and flexible, with their lips covering their teeth. They’ll use light-toned play growls and high-pitched barks and may wrestle with, play bite or mount each other.

Alertness: An alert dog stands tall or on tiptoe with his ears perked up and forward. He shows normal or wide open eyes, and the mouth might be closed or slightly open, no teeth showing. His tail is up and possibly wagging.

Often an alert dog’s hackles will rise, and it might also be whining or barking in warning or excitement. Be wary. An alert dog may be noticing potentially positive events, such as play or training; potential prey to be chased; or possible threats that need a defensive response.

Dog speak
All dogs use some sort of noise to communicate, whether it’s barking, baying, growling or howling. Even Basenjis, a breed that doesn’t bark, have an eerie yodel they use to express excitement, as well as other vocalizations.

Barking: Barks are versatile and can be used to communicate many ideas.

  • the deep there’s-a-stranger-in-my-yard warning bark 
  •  the short yips of pre-play excitement 
  • the look-at-me bark 
  • the loud, alert bark 
  • the something’s-wrong, moaning bark 
  • the fearful, low, yelping bark
  • the joyful, welcome-home bark

Hunting Barking/Baying: Hounds and terriers bark or bay to attract the attention of their hunter/owner to the location of their intended prey.

Howling: Some dogs tend to howl more than others, which may be a way to express happiness, to reach out to other dogs or people, or to join in with other dogs’ howling (including those noisy sirens).

Growling: Although some soft growls are all in play, most growls are warnings like the don’t-come-any-closer growl and the deep, you’re-trespassing growl/grunt.

Watch out for serious growling. It could indicate that your dog is scared, dominating, in pain or guarding something. Any which way, your dog is more likely to bite once she’s started growling seriously. Snarling is even worse, as it’s usually a sign of imminent aggression or attack.

Whining: Whining is used by a dog to get attention; to indicate pain or panic; to raise the alarm or indicate excitement; or simply to get what she wants. High-pitched yelping or whimpering means fear.

Other Noises: Dogs have a huge variety of grunts, whines, whimpers, woo-hoos and other vocalizations to communicate with their owners.

Pay attention to the frequency, tone and situation and you’ll soon learn the difference between all your dog’s vocalizations. Soon, you’ll recognize what she’s trying to say and what’s normal for your dog.

Every dog is different
“Even though you may love dogs, it doesn’t mean that you understand them,” McConnell says. “You can love your husband or wife and not understand him or her, and he or she can talk.”

The more you learn about reading a dog’s body language, the better you’ll understand him and the better your relationship will be.

Take the time to study your dog’s reactions. It’s also a good idea to go to places where dogs gather (without your dog), such as dog parks, to study how the dogs interact. Watch the dogs’ overall body posture, as well as their separate parts, particularly the ears, eyes, lips, teeth, tail, torso and legs.

How do the dogs play with and greet each other? Which dogs appear to be dominant or submissive? How do they express that? Are the dogs fearful or bold with new experiences? What kinds of things capture their attention? How do they communicate with the other dogs and people?

Experts also recommend attending a dog obedience class. Not only will you and your dog learn essential basic training, you’ll gain a better understanding of your dog’s motivations. You’ll also figure out how to be a good leader for your dog.

Lisa Hanks is a freelance writer based in Southern California. She is the former editor of the Popular Dogs Series.

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i <3 dogs   Bloomington, IL

11/27/2012 5:18:15 PM

this was a really great article

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Ann   Fall City, WA

4/16/2012 10:27:57 PM

Geat article. I am familiar w/Patricia McConnell; I've read For the Love... an excellent book. I totally recommend it to anyone who wants to gain in depth understanding of his/her canine pal.

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Bret   Leeds, UT

2/26/2012 4:36:09 PM

Great Information!

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Cruzmaribel Lara   Salem, OR

12/29/2011 1:50:51 AM

This is so awesome! I am learning so much. I have had dogs as my companions all my life, and different breeds too. My current friend is a chihuahua mix breed with miniature pincher. I just adore her. I can more confidently ascertain what my Dora is trying to communicate to me, having the course to refer to. Thanks Lisa you have done a wonderful thorough job on the course.

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