Whether you have a new canine companion or you and your dog have been together for a while, it’s helpful to know the meaning of your dog’s communication signals so that you can adjust your own behavior as needed and so that you can be assured of your dog’s feelings. Dogs make vocalizations and gestures using their face and body just as humans do in order to express their feelings. While some of these gestures can appear very similar to human gestures, in dogs, they can have very different meanings. In this article, you’ll learn to interpret your dog’s various messaging strategies and you’ll learn how to communicate more effectively with your canine pal.
Understanding Dog Behavior
1.Observe your dog. Learning your dog’s habits, mannerisms, and movements through observation will allow the process of understanding its communication behavior to feel more natural. There will be plenty of things it does that will make sense to you without explanation. Just as every person is unique, so is your dog.
- Be aware that much of a dog’s language or communication techniques are subtle.
- By learning canine communication, you will be able to respond to any problems your dog expresses before a situation escalates. Not noticing small signs of stress or unhappiness can soon lean to more aggressive or distressed behaviors.
- Remember that this is a two-way learning process. Dogs have to learn our behavioral cues as well, and you should be careful about your own gestures and posture. Dogs also do not understand English. It is important that you teach your dog what you mean by “no” or “sit”. Just saying “sit” over and over again won’t make him learn it, and will make him think it’s just part of the random nonsense you say during the day. Luring your dog into a sit position and then rewarding them heavily for doing that task will make him eager to sit, and then saying the word as he sits will make him connect the dots that the word “sit” means “put your butt on the floor”.
- Note that a dog’s ability to signal may be hampered by the breedin question. For example, if your dog has squat ears or a docked tail, some of the signals may not apply to him/her.
Know your dog’s response to eye contact. Consider how you feel when someone stares at you directly rather than using normal eye contact. Just as you find it confronting, dogs also feel confused and threatened by direct head-on staring because it is a threat stance for them. A dog that looks away in this situation is actually being polite and is seeking to avoid confrontation. Alternately, training your dog to make eye contact to communicate is extremely helpful for keeping his focus on you. 
- The most effective forms of dog training are positive reinforcement and clicker training. These are the most consistently proven type of training shown by scientists, veterinarians and animal behaviorists. Punishment is frowned upon because it is proven that dogs have very short memories, and likely do not connect situations like them pooping on the floor to your dissatisfaction. In fact, dogs do not feel guilt. Their owners simply stop being as mad when they “look guilty” and it becomes rewarding for both the owner and dog for the dog to offer signs of “guilt”. The dog learns you dislike it when poop is on the floor and when you come home, they “act guilty” in order to appease you. They do not in fact relate their action of pooping to you being mad.
- Clicker training is the idea is to lure your dog into a position and indicate instantly they have done the right thing, and reward them for that behavior.
- Dog behavior is driven by the most rewarding or least punishing option they have in every situation. If the most rewarding option is to chew on your shoes, they will do so. If you reward them for not chewing on your shoes, they will choose to do that even when you are not around. In contrast, punishment or dominance suggests showing the dog who is boss, which simply results in the behavior being done when you are not around.
- Dogs are highly reward based and the dominance theory has been disproven. Dogs act in ways that are most rewarding, not based on trying to “dominate” you or another dog. Be the most rewarding thing in your dogs life and he will be eager to do whatever you say.
- Rolling over and exposing the belly is a gesture to appease you, and giving a belly rub serves as excellent reinforcement for this behavior.
- An exposed belly can also indicate passive resistance to a perceived threat.
- Mounting (or humping) can be a sign of stress in a dog, especially where a low-confidence dog is trying to establish allegiance with a higher-confidence animal.
- Dogs use a variety of gestures and postures to express discomfort, including excessive/misplaced sneezing or yawning, licking of the lips, avoiding eye contact, cowering, whale eye (seeing the whites or their eye) and a stiff body. When a dog is showing discomfort, the best thing to do is to stop what you are doing and not do it in the future. If you need your dog to be comfortable with something, make it very rewarding by giving them tons of treats and introducing them to the uncomfortable thing slowly. Soon your pooch will be offering to do those things for a treat!
- A dog can show many emotions with his tail. A wagging tail and wiggly butt mean pure joy. A slowly wagging tail means a cautious nature. A stiff tail held high is a sign of alertness, a low tail is a sign of content. A tucked tail means they are scared.
- Learn to interpret your dog’s posture.The ways in which a dog holds its body can tell you a great deal about its mood and emotions. Many of the signals will be subtle and it can take some time to learn all of its expressions but it is well worth the effort.
2.Identify playful and affectionate behavior. Dogs communicate easy confidence and a desire to play through posture and body signals.
- Confident stance: A dog that is feeling confident will stand tall, have its tail up and probably wagging slowly, its ears will either be pricked up or relaxed, and it will generally look relaxed. Its eyes will have smaller pupils as they are also relaxed.
- Bowing: Facing you and with head and chest dipped low to the ground, front legs splayed out, and with rear end and tail up is a clear invitation to play. This is known as the “play bow”.It can be mistaken by owners as an attack stance but it clearly denotes playtime.
- Hip swings: Hip swings or nudges are another sign of play.This involves the dog swinging around another dog and knocking them to the ground using the backside (the end of the dog without teeth!).When the dog’s rear is presented to you, it is an indication of trust and depending on your dog, it might mean your dog wants a scratch. Wiggling its rear end is a sign of excitement and friendliness.
- If a dog is stretching with his butt in the air, front legs and paws stretched out in front, and head close to the ground, he is probably feeling playful.
- If your dog raises his/her paw to touch your knee or another part of your body, the dog wants to get attention, make a request or ask for something, or indicate a wish to play.The gesture begins as a puppy with kneading associated with obtaining mother’s milk but becomes similar to that of offering a hand for a handshake – it’s about connecting and friendship.
- Repeatedly pawing at the air is often used by puppies as an invitation to play.
- If a dog’s tail is in a neutral (level with body or slightly lower, he is most likely feeling secure and friendly.
- If your dog’s tail is fiercely wagging and his/her tail up, he/she is feeling mischievous and inclined to bother and annoy you or a fellow canine! It could also signal swatting away another animal.
- If your dog is slowly or slightly wagging his/her tail and watching you, he/she is relaxed but alert and is anticipating, ready to play.
3.Interpret discomfort or unease. Knowing when your dog is uncomfortable or feeling insecure can help you meet the animal’s needs and provide comfort and reassurance when necessary.
- Pacing can be a sign of nervousness, but it can also be a sign of excitement or boredom. If your dog gets plenty of exercise and entertainment, watch for other signs of nervousness that may accompany the pacing.
- A dog who feels threatened may raise his/her hackles. This tactic, which involves the raising of the strip of fur running down the middle of the dog’s back, is a dog’s attempt to make itself appear larger than normal. It is not necessarily an aggressive stance but one of “high alert”, making itself ready for whatever may come next. A scared dog can bite, so be extremely careful around a dog raising its hackles.
- A dog who is frightened or insecure may cower or crouch down. A slight crouch can denote submissiveness or nervousness. A similar stance can be an arched back, slightly bent legs, and the tail down (but not tucked under), and looking at what is concerning it.
- A dog raising one paw while keeping most of the body away from the person, animal or object creating uncertainty, and backing away is showing uncertainty or puzzlement. If the dog’s head is tilted to one side, this means that the dog is listening, or is uncertain and puzzled and is awaiting more information.
- A slow tail wag with the tail slightly lowered can indicate that the dog is confused and is asking for an explanation, or is investigating a non-threatening new object.
- If your dog’s tail is slightly lowered and still, he is alert and watching. If the tail is lowered and is barely moving, it can also indicate insecurity.
- If there is slight movement with a low tail, this can indicate that the dog is either sad or not feeling well.
4.Recognize warning signs of aggression. Aggression may lead to unwanted dog fighting or attacks. Recognizing early warning signs of aggression can help your deescalate a situation before it gets worse.
- A dog whose tail is lowered or tucked between its legs is showing anxiety, fear, and uncertainty.Wagging can still occur in this situation, which can lead to the misunderstanding that the dog is happy. This position can also indicate a need for reassurance or protection.
- A dog that suddenly freezes in the middle of an action is feeling unsure of itself and would rather be left alone, or is preparing for an attack. This is commonplace when a dog is holding a bone; don’t get between the dog and its bone!
- If your dog leans forward and appears very rigid, he most likely feels aggressive or threatened. This occurs in response to what the dog perceives as a threat or a challenge. The tail will usually be tucked down or under, or wagging in a quick and frantic manner.
- When a dog is considering an attack or feels threatened, the whites of his/her eyes will likely show as the dog looks at the perceived threat.
- A dog that was showing signs of aggression but who then shakes the head and shoulders may be signaling the end of a certain level of tension, such as being alert to a threat or an anticipated event that doesn’t occur.