Understanding Dog Language

Dog with tongue out

People who have lived with a dog for a long time usually know intuitively what it wants to say. In contrast, canine language can be difficult for first-time owners, because it is very complex. Unfortunately, misunderstandings can also have serious consequences – such as if a dog doesn't know how to handle itself and suddenly bites. This article helps you to better understand canine language.

Understanding canine language: Why is this so important?

Misunderstandings between dogs and humans can be very dangerous. This is why it is so important that you truly understand dog language. Before a dog bites, it generally shows in its own way that it isn't happy about something. However, these alarm signals can be overlooked or misinterpreted.

A further example: There is a difference between a dog not obeying you because it doesn't want to or because it is scared of a situation. Perhaps it doesn't want to 'sit' on the side of the road because it is frightened of the passing cars. If you know how your dog really feels, you can save it a lot of stress.

The most important thing: Mutual understanding creates trust and reinforces the friendship between you and your dog.

How do dogs communicate?

Dogs communicate with humans and fellow canines in several ways. Expressions like barking, whimpering, whining, howling or growling are part of verbal language.

However, dogs don't just use their voice to communicate with one another, but their entire body. Body language includes gesturing and mimicry. Wagging the tail is an example of gesturing, whilst baring the teeth is an example of mimicry.

The message of smells

Smells play an important role in the canine world. A dog's nose has up to 300 million olfactory cells (human nose: five million). It's hardly surprising that dogs are deployed to track down missing persons.

With the help of urine and faecal markings, dogs leave important messages for their fellow canines. This too is part of dogs' language. A urine stain or pile of faeces at the wayside? Nothing like diving in and sniffing around to not miss any messages. It's quite normal for dogs to smell or even lick the droppings of other canines on walks.

Dogs' language depends on context

Unfortunately dog's language is rarely clear-cut. In order to understand the meaning of a statement, you always have to consider the specific context. This means the particular situation in which your dog currently finds itself. If you ignore this, misunderstandings can easily occur.

For instance, dogs lick their nose to appease their counterpart. But if it received a treat to nibble at just beforehand, it may just want to clean its nose.

Barking as part of dogs' language

Dogs bark for very different reasons – for instance, because they are hungry or thirsty, because they want to go for a walk or because they want to play with their owner. A desire for attention is often the underlying factor.

Even with barking, you can see that dog's language is often ambiguous. Dogs also bark when they want to warn their owners of an intruder. They bark even when they themselves feel threatened.

If the verbal warning is of no use, baring their teeth may be the next step. The expression 'barking dogs never bite' unfortunately isn't always true.

Desire for attention or warning

How do you now distinguish whether your dog simply wants attention or is trying to express a serious warning?

In general, barking is probably meant in a friendly way if it is high-pitched. Deep barking indicates that a dog is seriously annoyed or feels threatened.

Chihuahuas and other small dogs bark in a higher pitch, whilst large dogs such as St Bernards have a deeper tone. This too must be considered when making an assessment.

Some dogs bark at every opportunity and test their owners' nerves to the very limit. However, dogs that bark excessively are often simply not challenged enough.

Our article How to Calm Barking Dogs explains what you can do in this case.

Howling Alaskan Malamut

Howling encourages solidarity

When wolves howl, they signal that they belong to their pack, as this encourages social cohesion. Howling also communicates their location to other animals or warns them of a danger.

Pet dogs bark too – some more and some less. Basset Hounds, Beagles and Huskies are some of the breeds that bark the most.

Does your four-legged friend join in when the church bells ring or a siren sounds? Experts presume that dogs interpret these noises as the howls of fellow canines due to the similar tone frequency.

Pain, loneliness and stress can also lead to your dog howling.

Tip: Howl along too
Even if it seems strange to you, dog owners should wholeheartedly join in with howling every now and then, according to expert advice. This strengthens the bond with your dog, because you are showing that you too belong to the pack.

The meanings of whining and whimpering

Howling or whimpering is also part of dogs' language and can have different meanings. Dogs whimper because they are looking forward to a long walk with their beloved owner. However, they also whimper if they are scared or frustrated.

Dogs are pack animals. Some suffer from severe separation anxiety if they have to spend a long time at home alone and often howl for hours on end.

Growling in dog language

“This far and no further.” If a dog growls, this is the last warning before it bites. 

As strange as it sounds, be pleased if your dog growls. You definitely shouldn't stop it from growling or even punish it for doing so. Dogs that aren't allowed to growl may bite immediately without first warning their counterpart.

Body posture

Dogs can already tell from their fellow canines' posture whether they are in a peaceful mood or if they had better watch out.

Relaxed dogs have a relaxed body posture, whilst tense dogs appear very stiff.

Dominant dogs make themselves big. The posture of an aggressive dog is upward and forward. Its whole body cries out “I'm ready to attack!”.

In contrast, a defensive dog tends to turn its body downwards and backwards. Its posture expresses its wish to flee and retreat. Insecure, anxious dogs make themselves small. In extreme cases, they even lie on their back to demonstrate their submissiveness.

Dog's body language 

Body language is another important part of canine language. Along with verbal language, you should be able to read this well in order to correctly interpret your dog in all situations.

The position of the tail

A dog that wags its tail is happy. This too is only correct to a certain extent. First of all, wagging the tail only means that a dog is agitated. Whether this is positive or negative remains open to interpretation.

You come home after a long day at work, your dog runs to you with its tail swinging back and forth in a wide arc? Then you can assume that your dog is happy to see you.

Does an unknown dog come running to you with stiff movements and stare at you with a fixed gaze? Is its tail wagging in short swoops? In this case, caution is advised.

A stiffly upturned tail indicates that the dog wants to provoke. If the tail is extended horizontally backwards, this is a threatening gesture.

If a dog tucks in its tail, it is uncertain and anxious.

The eyes and the position of the ears

If a dog looks straight ahead and stares at its counterpart with a fixed gaze, this is to be understood as a threat. Its pupils are constricted and fittingly, its ears are pointed forwards.

Ears pointing backwards indicate fear, uncertainty or submission.

A relaxed dog also has relaxed facial features and dilated pupils. A dog that isn't aggressive and wishes to calm the situation turns its head to the side.

Tip for lop ears
Does your dog have lop ears? This makes its ear movements difficult to recognise. It helps to observe the base of the ears.

If the teeth are bared

If a dog raises its upper lip and only shows its front teeth, utmost caution is advised! This is a serious threat if the body is also stiff and its counterpart is met with a fixed stare.

If a dog shows all its weapons by completely exposing its teeth, this is probably a defensive threat. During the snarl, the dog will avert its gaze every now and then. The body is pointed backwards and downwards and the tail lowered. The dog is scared but more than ready to defend itself.

Grinning and smiling in canine language

However, there are exceptions to the rule: A subservient form of teeth-bearing is known as submissive grinning. It is accompanied by a crouched posture, wagging tail or retreat.

Social smiling has also developed from submissive grinning and is something that dogs only show to humans. The muzzle is slightly open, the flews slightly drawn back, usually accompanied by an upright, relaxed posture and a wagging tail.

Understanding canine language with videos

Dogs often move very quickly. When they frolic around the dog run with their fellow canines, the fine nuances of their body language are difficult to recognise. Is it still a peaceful game or is the situation escalating?

If you want to understand your own dog better, film it with your smartphone on your next walk. Playing the video in slow motion once in a while can be a real eye-opener.

On YouTube too you can find numerous videos explaining canine body language.

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