Of all the amazing attributes a dog possesses, the ability to communicate is probably the most impressive. Dogs communicate with us all day, whether we know it or not, we speak directly to them through a variety of verbal and nonverbal cues.
In fact, a recent study concluded that dogs use 19 different signals to talk to us. These signals are called “reference signals,” for example, the way babies communicate with their parents. This is also how great apes communicate with each other. Reference signals are rare in non-primates.
“Dogs behave like great apes, but they are cross-species,” said study leader Hannah Worsley.
As dog owners, our key is to understand the gestures the dog is using and reward the dog with the desired response. Dogs want to communicate primarily through body language and use vocalizations only when needed. (Although some dogs find the need to vocalize more than others)
Here are some nonverbal cues that dogs use to get our attention:
Perhaps the most obvious observation, but also sometimes misunderstood. A dog wagging its tail doesn’t mean it’s happy. If this is a dog you’re unfamiliar with, consider the possibility that the tail wagging isn’t signaling you to pet the dog. Pay attention to the dog’s ears, if the ears are drooping and not perky, it may be a sign that he is uncomfortable. Also, watch for stiffness in other parts of the dog’s body.
Here are some general tail movements to remember:
- A curly tail usually means a relaxed dog. It can also mean confidence or dominance.
- A straight, stiff tail means a dog is following something closely.
- A low tail or a curled tail signifies fear and submission.
Personally, this is my favorite way for dogs to talk to us. Lively ears show us that a dog is very interested and highly focused on what comes next. The drooping ears are a sign of obedience, while the set ears back means the dog is unhappy and uncomfortable. In general, the flatter the ears, the more submissive the dog is, and the more pointed the ears, the more interested the dog is.
Dogs do many things with their eyes. Eye language comes in at number two on my list of favorite dog languages. Sad puppy eyes are the most obvious way dogs use their eyes, and they are very effective in this situation.
Dogs may happily close their eyes when they receive a particularly pleasant belly rub or scratch behind the ear.
When you can see the whites of your dog’s eyes, they are on high alert and need space.
A dog that doesn’t blink may show signs of aggression, but it’s likely that when your dog is staring at you, it’s just trying to get your attention.
Typically, if you make direct eye contact with your dog, he or she will likely maintain the contact for a while, then submissively look away. When avoiding eye contact completely, your dog will feel uncomfortable and show signs of giving in again.
Do dogs smile? The answer to this question is usually yes, so the real question becomes, what does that smile mean? By looking forward to your ears, relaxed eyes, and wide open mouth and floppy tongue, you’ll be able to quickly tell if a smile is a sign of contentment.
When a dog shows its teeth, it’s a sign of unhappiness and can be a sign of fear and aggression.
body language in context
When trying to decipher what your dog is saying to you, always consider the context of the situation. Also, try not to focus on one movement and pay attention to your dog’s entire body language. If you pay attention to these prompts in context, you should find out what your dog is trying to communicate, which makes your dog happy.
Here are some familiar cues dogs give humans and how to interpret them:
What does it mean when my dog yawns?
When a dog yawns, it can sometimes be difficult to understand whether the yawn is positive or negative. Dogs yawn when they’re stressed, but also when they’re expecting something interesting. Some dogs will yawn and say “calm down” at other dogs during play. Using the context of the situation can often tell you what a yawn means. Either way, if you see him or her yawning, do something nice for your dog.
What does my dog bark mean?
While barking is usually not the most pleasant sound in the world, barking can also be interpreted in different ways. If a dog has been patiently using nonverbal cues to communicate with you to no avail, he may think barking is the only way to get your attention.
Don’t interpret this type of bark the wrong way; your dog is just talking to you! Your dog may be barking because they need to do business outside or because their favorite toy is stuck under the sofa. In this case, your dog may have good reasons for your attention.
Other, more annoying barks might be a reminder of a new house coming to the family. These barks can be out of fear or excitement. They can also be trained from dogs, but it takes time and patience.
What does my dog’s head tilted mean?
Dogs tilt their heads because they are more attentive. Think of your dog’s ears as antennae. When something surprises them, or they hear a sound they’ve never heard before, they tilt their head to realign their antenna, their ears, to accommodate the sound. This behavior is inherent in dogs and happens instinctively.
Why is my dog licking me?
Sometimes you taste good. No, really, sometimes dogs want to lick the salt off our faces. There is a more scientific reason for this, though. Licking is a behavior that dogs learn from birth. When dogs are newborn puppies, their mothers lick them to stimulate breathing and clean them up. From a very young age, puppies will affectionately lick their mother’s mouth. A big kiss on the mouth is usually your dog’s way of showing love and respect (or if they want to clean up the rest of your lunch).
Why is my dog sneezing?
When a dog sneezes, it is more likely from excitement and anticipation than from a human sneeze. My dog Ava sometimes sneezes uncontrollably while playing as she gets more and more excited. If this is not normal behavior for your dog, sneezing may be due to an irritant in their nose and may need to be checked by a veterinarian.
Sneezing during play comes from the way dogs interact. Much of the dog’s communication is to keep the peace, whether with their human companions or with their furball buddies. Sneezing is one way dogs tell each other “don’t take it seriously, it’s play time.”
How can I talk to my dog?
Once we understand how our dogs talk to us, then we can talk to them better. Dogs pick up on the same nonverbal cues they give us. Hand movements, eye movements, and head tilt are easily captured by dogs. Once the dog has learned the action, it begins to speak commands to accompany the action. Through trial and error, you will learn which commands your dog is most receptive to and continually improve the communication process.
Dogs are natural peacekeepers
If your dog is in peacekeeping mode, reassure them that everything is fine by petting them playfully and saying words of encouragement. What dogs often hear is not the actual words, but the tone in which we say those words.
Alex Benjamin told National Geographic, “Maybe dogs initially use intonation to listen to speeches and then recognize if the words you use are related to them.” Benjamin co-authored a study at York University Research, which shows that dogs prefer our version of “baby talk” to regular speech.
We all do, baby talk to our dog. It seems impossible not to, and now there’s a scientific study showing we do it for a good reason: Our dogs prefer it.
Just like real babies talk to newborn babies, when they’re puppies, talking to dogs this way helps them better understand our language. This is done by exaggerating our speech and making vowels sound clearer and higher pitched.
So, you don’t have to feel weird about babies talking to your dog. The study prefers to call it “dog-directed speech,” which I prefer.
Whether you use “dog-guided speech” or have mastered the gestures to talk to your dog, the flow of communication between dogs and humans is undeniably impressive. Some of these forms of conversation take time to perfect, and your dog will quickly adopt other forms of conversation. Take a closer look at how your dog speaks to you, and you’ll be better able to find ways to counter it.