How Do Dogs Communicate
By Dr. Kaitlin Wurtz December 22, 2020
Dogs don’t use language to communicate, at least not in the traditional sense. Instead, they rely on sending visual, auditory, tactile, and olfactory messages to those around them. Dogs have evolved alongside humans for at least 30,000 years and have become exceptionally adapted at understanding human communication (Thalmann et al., 2013). However, the ability of humans to read a dog’s communication is not as innate, but with a little knowledge we can get a pretty good sense of what our dogs are ‘saying’ to each other and to us!
How Do Dogs Communicate
Dogs utilize a variety of communication signals to express their intent and emotional state. These signals can be grouped into four main categories: visual, auditory, tactile, and olfactory.
- Eyes – Relaxed dogs will have soft eyes. Dogs with tense eyes are likely feeling anxious or aggressive. Dogs will use hard stares towards other dogs to indicate aggressive intent. Stressed or defensive feeling dogs will display what is called “whale eye” when the whites of their eyes are visible.
- Ears – Relaxed and neutral ears indicate a calm dog. When aroused, dogs will perk up and move their ears towards a stimulus. Dogs that are fearful or anxious will hold their ears back along their head.
- Tail – The position, direction, and movement of a dogs tail all help communicate their affective state. Aroused dogs will hold their tail upright. This could indicate alertness, playfulness, or even aggressiveness depending on the context. A tail held straight back or one that is hanging loosely indicates a relaxed dog. Dogs that are fearful will tuck their tails up under their back legs or against their stomach. Research has shown that the direction that a dog wags their tail is associated with their social intentions. A tail wagging to the left is likely negative, while a tail wagging to the right is likely a positive indicator (Artelle et al., 2011). The speed of a wagging tail can also indicate level of arousal, with quicker tails indicating a more aroused dog.
- Fur – Dogs can experience piloerection. This is when their fur stands up. Dogs may display this phenomenon when feeling aggressive, scared, or anxious.
- Mouth – The lips, teeth, tongue, and general tension of the mouth tell a lot about how a dog is feeling. Aggressive or fearful dogs will tighten their face and expose their teeth. Fearful or anxious dogs may yawn, pant, or repeatedly lick their lips. A relaxed or happy dog will have loose lips and a relaxed jaw, often with their mouth open and tongue hanging out.
- Body posture – The general posture of a dog’s body and their general muscle tension communicates a lot. Dogs orient towards desirable stimuli or may huddle away from intimidating stimuli. Dogs that are stressed will have a tense body and display rigid movements. Relaxed dogs will have relaxed muscles and loose body movements.
- Barks – The pitch, duration, and number of barks are used to convey information. Rapid barking in a mid-range pitch are used as an alert. Slower, lower pitched barks signify the perceived presence of a threat. Long, deep pitched barks are a call for companionship. Higher pitched, single barks may signify surprise or be used in greetings.
- Growls – Growls are used to indicate fear or aggressive intent, but they are also commonly used in play. The context of the situation should be read carefully to decipher the meaning behind a growl.
- Yips – Yips or yelps may indicate sudden pain or surprise.
- Whines – Dogs may whine or whimper when experiencing pain, fear, pleasure, or excitement, depending on the context.
- Howls – The sound of a howl travels further than regular barking and thus is used in long range communication. Howling dogs are likely looking for companionship.
- Bumping with nose – This can be used to get someone’s attention or to pacify a dominant dog when directed towards their muzzle.
- Leaning – Dogs may lean on people that they feel comfortable with to indicate affection.
- Pawing – Dogs may paw to get someone’s attention. Pawing may also be used as a calming signal.
- Urine – Dogs may use urine in territory marking. Urine can also be used to assess the health status or estrus status of female dogs.
- Feces – Feces also contain pheromone chemicals and may be used to mark territory.
- Saliva – Saliva is an additional source of pheromone secretions which vary depending on if the dog is angry, fearful, or confident.
How Do Dogs Communicate With Humans?
When communicating with humans, dogs will use many of the same communication signals that they use when communicating with other dogs. Since the behavior of dogs is extremely flexible and adaptable, they may alter their communication styles with humans to use signals that we understand best. Humans rely most heavily on their visual system and have weaker hearing and smelling ability compared to dogs. Therefore, dogs may find tactile or posture signals to be more effective than other cues that might work better towards members of their own species. One major difference between communication with other dogs and humans is the use of eye contact. Between dogs, eye contact is typically viewed as threatening. In humans though, dogs have adapted and will use eye contact in trusting and friendly contexts with people (Siniscalchi et al., 2018).
Evidence continues to show just how well dogs are at communicating with humans. They appear to be more skillful in using human forms of communication than wolves or even the chimpanzee (Kaminski and Nitzschner, 2013). Dogs are especially good at understanding where a human is looking or pointing as this often leads them towards the location of something rewarding (i.e. a treat or the ball they lost) (Topál et al., 2014). Research has shown that dogs may also use this understanding of attentional state to their advantage. In one study, dogs waited to steal a piece of food until they saw that humans were no longer watching (Call et al., 2003).
Can Dogs Understand Other Dogs?
Dog communication with other dogs is fairly universal. The tiniest Chihuahua may bow towards their friends when they want to play, just as a Great Dane will. A German Shephard will growl and snarl when feeling threatened just as a toy poodle will. While these instinctual communication behaviors exist across breeds, physical characteristics of certain breeds can hinder their ability to be understood. Dogs with super long or fluffy coats may hide their body posture or facial features, making it difficult for dogs to read them (Bradshaw and Wickens, 1992). Additionally, it may be common for some breeds to have physical modifications performed on them such as ear cropping or tail docking which can significantly impact their ability to communicate with other dogs (Sinmez et al., 2017). Dog’s may be able to adapt to these physical differences, however caution should be used when meeting new dogs that may feel uncomfortable around dogs that they struggle to communicate with.
Can Dogs Communicate With Cats?
History suggests that dogs and cats are able to communicate with one another. They do so through different body movements, growls, and even facial expressions. While their communication signals may not line up exactly with one another, they are typically pretty decent at getting their general point across. Since dogs are skilled at interpreting behavior, they are likely to make associations about the communication signals of cats through learning over time. For instance, dogs may learn that a hiss is often followed by a swat with a paw, and will learn to leave a hissing cat alone. Due to the dog’s unique ability to learn and adapt, they can often live harmoniously in households with other cats and even other species of pets (Feuerstein and Terkel, 2008). In addition, since both dogs and cats use olfactory signals in communication, it is likely that dogs can pick up different scent signals left by a cat.
How Do You Respond Back To Your Dog?
When our pet dogs communicate with us, it is usually on friendly terms. They either want to play, be fed, go outside for a walk, or want to show us their affection. In cases where your dog is trying to play or show you affection, you can respond back by mimicking their behaviors. A great example of this is to play bow towards your playful dog. In most cases, they will bow back with excitement and engage in other play behaviors (Rooney et al., 2001).
If you happen to encounter a not-so-friendly dog, there are communication signals referred to as “calming signals” that can help de-escalate an aggressive situation (Mariti et al., 2017). By turning your head or body away from the dog and by avoiding eye contact, you can indicate that you are not a threat. Additional behaviors that can help calm an anxious or aggressive dog include making yourself appear smaller or yawn. Yawning is often used for appeasement.
Can Dogs Understand Humans?
Research is ongoing into how well dogs can understand humans. As mentioned in this article, dogs can understand human pointing gestures and are aware of where people are looking. Other research has shown that dogs can read our facial expression (Somppi et al., 2014) and are empathetic towards our emotional state (Custance and Mayer, 2012). Anyone that has lived with a dog can tell you that dogs pick up on our verbal language too. In most households with dogs, the second you mention going on a walk, your dog will perk right up. It’s clear that dogs pick up on a number of other words too through associative learning.
Communication in dogs involves their whole bodies – their posture, fur, facial expressions, vocalizations, and pheromones all work together to express their intent and emotional state. Dogs are adaptable creatures that have learned how to communicate effectively with the people and animals in which they share their homes with. As dog lovers, taking the time to learn dog communication signals can help us become more attentive pet parents and can improve the relationship we have with the dogs in our life.
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