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How dogs communicate

Updated: Mar 12


Because dogs don't speak our language, the only way to truly comprehend and communicate with them is for us to understand and appreciate what they are telling us through their body and vocal language. Often, gestures or actions that we assume mean one thing are actually the dog telling us the exact opposite, and determining what that wagging tail or exposed tummy really means can sometimes be the difference between a belly rub and a bite. Dogs communicate using a complex language of body signals that reflect what they are thinking and feeling. They use these signals consciously and unconsciously to communicate intent and ensure their personal safety by affecting behavior in others. Appeasement & Displacement A dog might try to appease another by actively seeking attention via one or more of the following behaviors:

  • muzzle and/or ear licking

  • jumping up

  • lowering and curving the body

  • blinking

  • clacking or exposing the teeth “(“smiling”)

  • lip licking

  • lowering the head and ears

  • play bowing

Although much appeasement consists of this active body language, passive submission such as cowering and body freezing seems to be done in response to escalating fear in the presence of a perceived threat. A socially experienced dog receiving these signals will tolerate this language of appeasement and reciprocate with appropriate signals; other less experienced dogs might take advantage of this deference and attempt to control or aggress. In addition to appeasement, dogs also commonly use displacement signals to avoid confrontation. These body signals are used to provide a distraction – a way of covering up what the dog is actually feeling. Yawning, sniffing, scratching, sneezing, and licking are all active behaviors that keep the dog calm and provide a distraction to refocus the attention of others away from him. Common Body Language Any signal that is demonstrated by a particular part of the dog’s body must always be read in the context of whatever other body or vocal language the dog is communicating. Similar signals have different meanings in different situations, so the position of the body and other vocal signals will help you understand a dog’s intent and emotional state. Stress/Discomfort/Nervousness Language When dogs are stressed and nervous they exhibit many different kinds of behavior that either help relieve the stress they are feeling or appease a perceived threat. While dogs like humans, yawn when they are tired, they are also much more likely to yawn when they are nervous. Lip licking does not always mean a dog is hungry or has just eaten either, but is a very clear stress signal that is performed when a dog is nervous or experiencing fear.

  • Yawning can be a sign that a dog is tired, but it also signals stress

  • Lip licking or tongue flicking. Dogs lick their lips when nervous

  • Brief body freezing – the dog is still for a few seconds before reacting

  • Body freezing – the dog freezes until the threat goes away or he decides to use fight or flight

  • 'Whale Eye' – the dog turns his head away but keeps looking at the perceived threat, showing the whites of his eyes

  • Head turn – the dog will turn his head away from a fear source as a gesture of appeasement

  • Furrowed brow, curved eyebrows – caused by facial tension

  • Tense jaw – the mouth is closed, and the dog is preparing for action

  • Hugging – a dog will gain comfort by holding onto his owner

  • Low tail carriage – indicates discomfort and uncertainty

  • Curved tongue – the tongue is curved at the edges from tension

  • Raspy, dry-sounding panting – nervousness reduces saliva production