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In animal communication Dog communication refers to movements and sounds dogs use to send signals to other dogs, and other animals (usually humans). Dog communication comes in a variety of forms, and is part of the foundation of dog social behavior.

Dogs use certain movements of their bodies and body parts and different vocalizations to express their emotions. There are a number of basic ways a dog can communicate its feelings. These are movements of the ears, eyes, eyebrows, mouth, nose, head, tail, and entire body, as well as barks, growls, whines and whimpers, and howls.

Dominance and submission Edit

Further information: Dog behavior

Extensive genetic research has shown that domesticated dogs originated from grey wolves.[1] Wolves primarily live in social family groups called packs in which they exhibit communicative sound and body gestures that can also be seen in their domesticated descendents. Included in this communication are gestures of dominance and submission.[2]

To signal dominance, a wolf or dog stands stiff legged and tall. The ears are erect and forward. Tail is held up vertically and hackles are slightly raised. [3][4]

A wolf or dog will show active submission by drawing back his lips and ears and lowering his body. His tail will be low or completely tucked under his body. His back may partially arch down to further display deference. [5][6]

A wolf or dog will communicate a more intense deference through passive submissive gestures. The animal will roll on his back, vulnerably exposing his underside and throat. The paws will be drawn into the body while eye contact is avoided. The tail maybe tucked and whimpering noises may be heard. [7][8]

Body movements Edit

See also: Wolf body language

Tail Edit

How high or low the tail is held, in relation to how the dog's breed naturally carries its tail, and how it is moved can signify the dog's mood. When the tail is held high, it shows that the dog is alert and aware; the tail between the legs means that the dog is afraid or frightened. If the fur on the tail is also bristled, the dog is saying it is willing to defend itself or pups.

Small, slow wags of the tail say the dog is questioning things around the environment it is in. Either it is not sure whether it is the target dog or the person around it is friendly, or it is not sure what is going on or what is expected of it to do. Large, fast wags of the tail may be a sign of a happy, excited, or an energetic dog, but can also signal aggression.

Dogs are said to exhibit a left-right asymmetry of the tail when interacting with strangers, and will show the opposite, right-left motion with people and dogs they know.[9]

Aggressive/ violent Edit

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When a dog's lips curl back this shows that the dog has a strong urge to bite. This is an unconscious reflex, designed to get the soft flesh of the lips away from the teeth before the dog bites, and is often misinterpreted as a way of communicating aggressive intent. For example, many dogs will curl their lips back into a "snarl" when they take a cookie or bone.

Ears Edit

Ear position relates the dog's level of attention, and reaction, to a situation or animal. Erect ears facing forward means the dog is very attentive. They lay their ears back for the sounds surrounding them and also when in a submissive state.

Dogs with drop ears, like Beagles, can't use these signals very well, as the signals first developed in wolves, whose ears are pricked. Wolf-like dogs (such as the Samoyed or Husky) will, when content and happy, often hold their ears in a horizontal position but still forward. This has been referred to as the "wolf smile".

Mouth Edit

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Mouth expressions can provide information about the dog's mood. When a dog wants to be left alone, it might yawn (although yawning also might indicate sleepiness, confusion, or stress) or start licking its mouth without the presence of any food. When a dog is happy or wants to play, it might pant with lips relaxed, covering the teeth and with what sometimes appears to be a happy expression (it might appear as a smile to some observers) or with the mouth open.

Mouth expressions that indicate aggression include the snarl, with lips retracting to expose the teeth, although some dogs also use this during play. However, some dogs will pull back their "top lips" in what looks like an aggressive way, when they are excited or happy. For example a dog prone to "smiling" may do so in greeting to a much loved owner and this should not be punished lest the dog become less affectionate and more withdrawn.

It's important to look at the dog's whole body and not just the mouth or tail before deciding what the dog is feeling. What appears initially as aggression might be an invitation to play, or vice-versa.

Tongue (Licking) Edit

A very common form of communication is for a dog to lick another dog, or a person. Dogs lick other dogs' faces and mouths when they greet each other to indicate friendliness. Dogs like to lick human skin not only for the salt from the sweat, but also as a form of greeting, such as by briefly licking a person's hand after sniffing it.

Licking is also used as a social bonding analogous to primate social grooming and stroking. This can indicate intimacy. Such licking is longer and slower, as compared to the brief licking of faces during a greeting.

Eyes and eyebrows Edit

While dogs don't have actual eyebrows, [How to reference and link to summary or text] they do have a distinctive ridge above their eyes, and some breeds, like the Labrador Retriever, Rottweiler, Bernese Mountain Dog, German Shepherd, and Doberman have markings there. A dog's eyebrow movements usually express a similar emotion to that of a human's eyebrow movements. Raised eyebrows suggest interest, lowered brows suggest uncertainty or mild anger, and one eyebrow up suggests bewilderment. Eyes narrowed to slits indicate affection for the person or animal the dog is looking at.

Feet and legs Edit

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Although a dog's feet lack the dexterity of human hands, a dog can use them as an avenue of communication. A dog might stamp its feet, alternating its left and right front legs, while its back legs are still. This occurs when the dog is excited, wants something, or wants its owner's attention. Pointers tend to tuck one front leg up when they sense game nearby.

This behavior is not communicative so much as the dog exhibiting a fixed-action pattern called "the eye stalk." It is also common for dogs to paw or scratch for objects they desire. Many dogs are trained to mimic a human handshake, offering a paw to a human stooping down and offering their own hand in exchange.

Head Edit

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The leaning of a dog's head to the right or to the left often indicates curiosity and/or a sound it has not heard before. This, however, may also be a sign of recognition to a familiar word.

If the dog's head is held high with its neck craning forward, it is showing interest, although, it could also mean an aggressive mood if other body language is present.

A bowed head indicates submission and can be a request for physical affection.

Vocalizations Edit

Barks Edit

Main article, including bark control training: Bark (utterance)

Dogs bark for many reasons, such as when perceived intruders (humans, dogs, or other animals unknown to them) approach their living space, when hearing an unfamiliar or unidentified noise, when seeing something that the dog doesn't expect to be there, or when playing. Barking also expresses different emotions for a dog, such as loneliness, fear, suspicion, stress, and pleasure. Playful or excited barks are often short and sharp, such as when a dog is attempting to get a person or another dog to play.

Dogs generally try to avoid conflict; their vocalizations are part of what allows other dogs to tune into their emotions, i.e., whether they're aggressive or are in a playful mood.

The bark of a distressed or stressed dog is high pitched and repetitive; it tends to get higher in pitch as the dog becomes more upset. For example, a dog left home alone and who has separation anxiety might bark in such a way.

Some breeds of dogs have been bred to bark when chasing, such as scent hounds whose handlers use the bark to follow the dog if it has run out of sight. Coonhounds and Bloodhounds are good examples. This kind of barking is often called "singing" as the sound is longer and more tonal.

Some research has suggested that dogs have separate barks for different animals, including dog, fox, deer, human, squirrel and cat.[10]

Growls Edit

Growls can express aggression, a desire to play, or simply that the dog doesn't want to participate in what's about to happen next (being picked up for example). For this reason, most pet owners have been urged to treat growls with special attention. This includes always considering the context of a growl, and exercise caution. If the threat is very serious, the dog will usually start off with a very low toned but strong growl and then if the threat isn't being heeded the tone of the growl gets progressively higher in tone.

Howls Edit

Howling may provide long-range communication with other dogs or owners. Howling can be used to locate another pack member, to keep strangers away, or to call the pack for hunting. Some dogs howl when they have separation anxiety.

Whines Edit

Whining is a high-pitched vocalization, often produced nasally with the mouth closed. A dog may whine when it wants something (such as food), wants to go outside (possibly to 'go to the bathroom'), wants to be let off the leash (possibly to greet another dog or a person), or just wants attention. A very insistent dog may add a bark at the end of a whine, in a whine-bark, whine-bark pattern.

Whimpers Edit

A whimper or a yelp often indicates the dog is in pain. This is often heard when dogs play-fight if one dog bites the other dog too hard. The whimper or yelp is used only when the dog intends to communicate its distress to a pack member (or human) to whom they are submissive or friendly, and the other dog or human is expected to react positively to the communication; dogs engaged in serious fights do not whimper, as this indicates weakness. Dogs also whimper when they are physically abused or neglected by people.

Whimpers are often associated with the lowering of the tail between the legs. Whimpers can also indicate strong excitement when a dog is lonely and is suddenly met with affection, such as when a dog is left alone in a house during the day and its owner comes through the door late at night. Such whimpering is often accompanied by licking, jumping, and barking. Whimpering is distinct from barking in that it is softer, higher pitched, and lower volume.

Human speech Edit

Some dogs can be trained to make vocalizations that sound like human speech sounds. This feat is typically achieved via lengthy training with positive reinforcement techniques. Recent examples have included a whimpering pug on the Late Show with David Letterman.

See alsoEdit


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  • Consciousness Explained by Daniel C. Dennett, 1992, ISBN 978-0-316-18066-5
  • DOGS: A Startling New Understanding... by Raymond and Lorna Coppinger, 2002, ISBN 978-0-684-85530-1
  • Dog Language by Roger Abrantes, 3rd Ed. 2001, ISBN 978-0-9660484-0-7
  • "What is a 'Jewish Dog'? Konrad Lorenz and the Cult of Wildness." Boria Sax, Society and Animals, Volume 5, Number 1, 1997, pp. 3–21(19)
  • My Doggie Says...; Messages from Jamie by Fred Haney ISBN 0-9785515-0-8
  • On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals by Turid Rugaas ISBN 0-9674796-0-6


External linksEdit

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