Dog Talking To Owner

Dog Talk: How To Understand What Your Dog Is “Saying”

Dog Talk

Your dog has the ability to tell you exactly how he feels – whether he is happy, sad, bored, excited, disgusted, puzzled, confident, uneasy or frightened.

The inconspicuous and almost continuous movements of his eyes, ears, body and tail are his emotional body language and his primary means of communication. Researchers are finding that, rather than being limited in their means of expression, animals are attuned to an extremely subtle and refined system of communication.

The wild dogs of Africa studied by Jane Goodall and wolves observed by Dr. Michael W. Fox, recognized authority on canine body language, communicated to each other a wide range of attitudes, including anger, dominance, submission, joy, interest, disgust, dismay, affection and fear – using only the slightest body movements.

Though domesticated dogs have lost some sensitivity to this language in their dealings with humans, they still use most of these instinctive, inherited forms of communication. With practice, a sensitive observer with a  keen eye can learn to read his dog’s body language.

As he becomes more skilled at identifying subtle changes of mood in his pet, his communication and companionship with him will grow deeper and more pleasurable.

Veterinarians with long experience often read canine body language well, noticing the smallest nuances. Dr. Theodore Stanton, a veterinarian who has practiced now for more than forty years, has become an expert at it. He frequently acts as interpreter for his patients when their owners bring them in for treatment and ask him why their dog is doing certain peculiar things.

“Among Dogs, as among most animals, a hierarchy exists in every group,” says Dr. Stanton.

He goes on to say, “From the most dominant ‘top dog’ to the lowest ‘under dog,’ each dog works out with each other in the group which of them will be dominant and which will be submissive. Much of a dog’s body language is used in the context of establishing these dominant-submissive relationships with other dogs and also with people.”

A dog uses every part of his body in some way to express his feelings and intentions. The appendage he uses most conspicuously and expressively is his tail.

“You can tell everything by a dog’s tail,” explains Mr. Stanton, “He holds it up when he is alert and expecting something. If he has met a strange dog or heard an unusual sound, it quivers a little. He is saying, ‘I’m ready for danger; I’m ready for anything!”

The Doctor finishes with, “A tail held very high – almost vertically – or arched over his back says he feels aggressive and dominant, and intends to do something about it if necessary. The dog with his tail tucked tightly between his hind legs is saying, ‘I’m scared, and I’m getting out of here!’”

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Dog Talk: How To Understand What Your Dog Is “Saying”

When your dog is talking, do you listen? Are you paying attention?

Barking is not the topic here, but rather, the way our dogs communicate to us and the world around them with the use of their body language, specifically the tail.

There are lots of different wags. Plain, ordinary, enthusiastic wagging means “I’m a friendly fella!” A slow wag is the nervous laugh of a dog who is embarrassed about something. A tail held high and wagged widely, instead of only slightly, means he wants to play. If he wiggles up to you after you have disciplined him, wagging his tail between his hind legs, he is saying he wants to make up and is sorry.

Most of a dog’s nosing around is done for identification purposes. When he approaches another dog, the first thing he does is sniff him out to discover whether he is friend or foe. First he smells the rear; then he smells the face.

When your dog props his paws on your chest or shoulders, he is trying to get in position to smell your breath. He can tell whether it’s you for sure, and what you’ve been eating that he might get some of!

You can often tell immediately whether a dog cares for your company by noticing the position of his lips. When he draws the corners of his lips forward, he is feeling distinctly antisocial. He may become aggressive and could attack, especially if he has drawn his lips open to show his teeth. However, when he pulls back horizontally so that he appears to be grinning, he is expressing his friendliness or submissiveness.

When he feels very submissive, he will smile like a simpleton. He looks like he’s feeling silly and has lots of “waggle.” A few dogs are capable of the mimic grin, something they have learned from humans and display only to humans. They retract their lips to show their front teeth in a wide toothpaste smile.

A dog that uses those teeth to chew up your slippers may be telling you that he is unhappy. A chewing dog is a fretting dog. A pet that gets a lot of attention otherwise, but is left shut in the house alone all day will fret in this manner. When he is lonely and unhappy, and he wants something done – now – then he becomes like a hyperactive child. He’s liable to chew up everything in the house eventually.

Dog Talk: How To Understand What Your Dog Is “Saying”

Most dog owners forget that the easiest way to bond with their pet, not to mention when also training the dog, is to understand basic dog language – body language, that is.

Let’s talk about a dog’s tongue. He uses it primarily for getting food and water, and for cooling himself. When “speaking body language,” he licks you with it to show his friendliness and to ask for attention. A dog that licks walls and eats dirt or dust, however, and does so without the need of a supplement in his diet, is desperate for attention or company.

His tongue can also tell you when he has swallowed his pill after being given a vitamin or medication. When it has gone down, his tongue will pop out like a frog’s two times in quick succession.

Watching His Eyes

Now let’s discuss how a dog uses his eyes to “talk”. How a dog moves his eyes can tell you much about his mood. A dog who is being submissive avoids eye contact with a dominant dog. One that is trying to make up with his master looks away from him in an exaggerated way. A contented dog curled up in a corner has a sleepy-eyed look.

On the other hand, a direct stare from a dog says he feels aggressive and means to have you keep your distance. When veterinarians are working with dogs in their medical rooms, they should be watching the eyes more than anything else to determine which dog might snap at him.

A good rule to follow for safety is this: A dog that watches every move you make is probably about to bite you! 

Perking Up Those Ears

Dogs speak with their ears as well as listen with them. A dog holding his ears straight up, forward, and erect, is alert. He may be checking on something he heard. He may be considering the possibility of a serious scuffle with an enemy or some friendly romping with his master.

A dog with lowered, relaxed ears is calm and sociable. If he is showing submissiveness or is frightened, he’ll keep them very low. A dog making a threat (and on the verge of attacking) twists his ears outward and downward, laying them flat against his head.

The Voice Of Reason

A dog’s vocal repertoire of whines, howls, growls, and barks are part of his body language. Noises are what he resorts to when he considers it imperative that someone get his message.

A dog that goes “Yip. Yip. Yip… yip, yip… yip!” for hours on end is usually bored. Likely he has been confined and left alone.

Sometimes he will vary his “yips” with a frustrated-sounding “Arrrrr, rarr, arrarrrr.”

A wailing puppy begging for attention delivers a high-pitched “Mmm, mmm, mmmmm,” usually in the dead of night.

Dog Talk: How To Understand What Your Dog Is “Saying”

Ever notice that your dog does funny stuff with his ears, tail, and other forms of body movement? This is his way of saying, “Hey you, yeah you! I’m talking to ya. Are you listening?”

For example, a dog often uses his forepaw to show that he wants to keep the peace. He gives a paw to his master when he wants to ask his forgiveness after digging up the flower bed.

Raising one forepaw forward to another dog is a sign of submission. He is indicating that he will roll over, if necessary, to demonstrate his total compliance.

When he raises both forepaws alternately, he is telling you he wants to play. A persistent paw patting and pulling on your arm is an insistent request for some undivided attention.

In a confrontation, a dog attempts to establish his position in the dominant-submissive hierarchy by the posture and position of his body. When two dogs meet and set out to decide who is dominant, they will stand side to side, as if to say, “By gosh, I’m the biggest dog. I’m the boss.”

A dramatic dog will arch his neck, raise his shoulder and rump hackles, extend all four legs stiffly, and look like he’s standing on tiptoe. One of them may push against the other one. The dog who is giving in will remain completely still if he is touched.

If the submissive dog is really frightened, he will roll over, as if to say, “I’m all yours. Do what you want.”

The dominant dog will then think, “I’ve got a chicken here. He won’t do anything… he’s a non-threat, lying there.” The confrontation is then over.

Sometimes a dog feels proud and he prances. He might be thinking, “I’ve got me a shoe. That’s the one I got whipped for last week, but I got it again!”

When a dog lowers his front end, leaves his tail end up, makes a nose-stab, then leaps backward and runs off, he is inviting you to play. When you see him race in circles, he is overjoyed about something – probably your arrival.

An ambivalent dog who is growling and wagging his tail widely at the same time is difficult to read. He may feel friendly or inquisitive about you; he may also feel that he must defend his territory.

On the other hand, he may feel aggressive and unfriendly, but afraid he can’t defend himself. And unless you can figure out where he stands, you may do something to get yourself bitten so be careful and pay attention.

Dog Talk: How To Understand What Your Dog Is “Saying”

Reading your dog like a book in order to understand his “dog language” is reasonably uncomplicated most of the time. His body language is straightforward generally, but he can sometimes fool you.

If he is frightened, for example, rather than friendly or curious, he is likely to bite you. A good indicator of his level of courage is the angle of his tail. If, as you come closer, he keeps his tail high and appears even more aggressive, he probably isn’t bluffing.

If his tail drops and he becomes quiet, he probably would just as soon be friends. However, if is his hackles stay up, even though his tail goes down, he is still dangerous and you should keep your distance.

Because we sometimes think of our pets as having almost human personalities, we are likely to interpret their body language in terms of our own likes and dislikes. We can do that up to a point because they’ve learned some of their preferences. Nevertheless, we have our differences.

Some Things You May Not Know

Your dog very likely has a few predilections you would never have suspected and probably will never approve. When he is rolling around in some stinky, odorous material, for example, the expression he has on his face could hardly be interpreted  as anything but outright rebellion. His lips are pulled back a little in a slight grin (a smirk perhaps), his ears are lowered (because he must feel guilty), and his eyelids are half-closed in an expression of pure defiance.

There’s another way to make a mistake in reading your dog’s body language. Some smart dogs can play-act. An outdoor dog  who has once been let in the house because he seems to be shivering on a cold night (in reality, dogs shiver from fear, not from the cold) will attempt to shake violently at the door whenever he feels he has a chance at a cozy evening by the fire.

A dog may play-act when he has accidentally barked at his own master. Nothing is more embarrassing; he will writhe on the ground when he realizes his error. To save face, a quick-witted dog will rush past his master and pretend he was barking at something else. He charges across the yard, furiously barking up the wrong tree, so to speak.

Most dogs are adept at one kind of body language that is plainly unambiguous. He speaks it when he lays his nose on your knee and looks up inquiringly with soft brown eyes, or when he muzzles the back of your neck while you are driving.

He is speaking his own language of love that has made him “man’s best friend” for thousands of years, and no dog owner has ever needed instructions in dog body language to get this message!

The information shared on this site is for information only. It does not take the place of professional advice from your pet’s healthcare provider.

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