How your dog communicates

Humans domesticated dogs more than 12,000 years ago, and we have been closely associated ever since. One of the reasons dogs make wonderful pets is their ability to communicate with us. Dogs see us as an extension of their canine family. However, they are very different from us and they communicate using dog-specific signals. Learning to interpret and understand your dog’s signals will help you to understand your dog, and what message he is trying to convey.

Dogs communicate through a series of signals, including a variety of facial expressions, body postures and vocalisation. Here is what you need to know to accurately interpret your dog’s signals.

Body language :
Dogs are descended from wolves, and they still maintain many wolf traits. Like wolves, dogs are pack animals, and they like to know where they stand in relation to other pack members — including their human family. If your dog is feeling brave or aggressive, he will try to appear larger and more powerful by standing tall with his ears and tail erect and his chest thrust forward. He may raise the hair around his neck and along his back (his hackles) and he may also wave his tail slowly and growl. If your dog is exhibiting this kind of behaviour, he is essentially challenging another dog, or human, for higher status in the “pack.”

At the other end of the scale, your dog may exhibit submissive behaviour by trying to appear smaller and younger. He may approach a more dominant dog, or human, from the side, crouching near to the ground and holding the tail low while waving it enthusiastically. He may also try to lick the dominant individual’s hands or paws and face, and roll onto his back to expose his stomach.

If your dog wants to play, he will try to get your attention by raising a front paw, or performing a play bow, which is often accompanied by barking.

Tail wagging :
Almost everyone knows that when a dog wags his tail loosely and freely, he is feeling happy and friendly. However, your dog uses his tail to show other emotions as well. To indicate subordination, a dog will exhibit exaggerated tail wagging which extends to the entire rump. If your dog is angry, he will wave his tail slowly and stiffly, in line with his back. If your dog is afraid, he will clamp his tail over his hindquarters. If he is anxious or nervous, he may stiffly wag a drooping tail (as a sign of appeasement). In general, if your dog holds his tail straight up — higher than 45 degrees to his spine – he is expressing interest and alertness.

Facial expressions :
Your dog’s facial expressions can tell you a lot about his mood, and reveal the vast range of emotions he is capable of expressing. If your dog pricks up his ears, he’s alert and listening intently. To indicate submission, pleasure or fear, your dog will hold his ears back, flattened onto his head. If your dog narrows or half closes his eyes, he is indicating either pleasure or submission. But when he opens his eyes really wide, he intends to be aggressive. You should not try to outstare your dog if he has nervous or aggressive tendencies as you could provoke an attack. However, regular, gentle eye contact with him is very reassuring and will help reinforce your relationship. To indicate aggression, your dog will snarl by drawing back both lips to expose most of his teeth.

Vocalisation :
Dogs make a wide variety of sounds, including barking, whimpering, whining, yapping, growling and howling. Your dog uses barking to communicate a variety of different messages, such as a warning, a greeting, an expression of playfulness or as a general call for attention. In different situations, he will emit a different barking sound. Your dog will whimper or whine when he is in pain or feeling submissive, and as a greeting. He will express excitement as high-pitched yapping.

Dogs growl to signal a warning or threat, or they may growl in defence. Be wary of a growling dog because he may attack if provoked. Dogs can also growl in non-aggressive situations, such as when playing with another dog or when petted.

If your dog howls, he is likely to be alone and seeking social contact. A dog’s howl can be heard much further than a bark, and is therefore used as a long-distance call.

If you pay close attention to your dog’s facial expressions, other body language signals and vocalisation, you will be able to accurately gauge his mood.

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