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Old 08-17-2008, 06:55 PM   #1
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Default How to: Interpret dog communication, a beginners guide

Whether or not we acknowledge it, there is a language barrier between canines and humans. Often, most owners concentrate on getting their point across through 'our' spoken language. But there is another level that can unlock some of the deeper potential in the relationship between the four-pawed kind the two-legged: unlocking the doggy lingo! So, what is your dog telling you?

Dogs are vocal creatures with a wide array of sounds: barks, growls, howls, gurgles ... some even sing! But a bark isn't just a bark, nor is a growl just a growl. There is the old adage 'actions speak louder than words', and it could not be any truer when applied to our canine companions. Much of how they speak is in how they move. Let's take a look.

First: the infamous growl!
This is a sound that can be made for various reasons. Most people think of a growl as a sign that a dog is vicious. This is falling far short of the full scope of its potential meaning. Obviously a dog can growl as a warning that says 'back off!' When this is the case there is usually a body sign that supports this. One will typically see some of the following: eyes wide and showing the whites, or the hackles (ridge of fur that runs along the spine) rising up, bodying stiffening or going stalk still, lips turning up to bare the teeth, perhaps the tail that was previously wagging stops and changes height either going between the legs or up above the body ... these are a good indication that this dog is feeling uneasy. The warning growl can be serious! Step back and look at the situation. Does it involve food, a toy, a person nearby, another dog? First and foremost: disarm the situation by removing the 'bad stimulus' from your dogs proximity, or your dog from the situation! Do not gamble and let it escalate further! At this point, you know a potential trigger, later you can work on desensitizing. On the flipside, there is the play growl. This is an invitation to play! A dog that is play growling typically has a loose body (think wriggly puppy), waggy tail, relaxed eyes, and most notably a play bow! This is fore paws on the floor, rump high in the air and a jovial manner. There is no need to stop a dog from play growling. This is a clear doggy-lingo that says 'You wanna play? Let's play! I wanna play!!!' An example of this is a dog growling while playing tug of war. This is not toy-possession if the dog releases the toy to your hand and is eagerly awaiting another session of play. It is toy possession if the dog turns stiff and tries to bite you if you try and take the tug rope.

The Bark
Barks are the staple of a dog's vocal lingo. They convey a number of things from: I'm happy, I wanna play, I'm on guard duty, get away from me... and much much more! The trick to this is similar to the growl. The body language will tell you much more than anything else. A bark that sounds like the dog wants to rip something to shreds may have been issued from a loose and wriggly playing dog thus dictating its true meaning. Key points are the eyes, ears, tail, body posture, and hackles. Intense eyes, ears held flat to the head, tail either held stiffly over the body or tucked between the legs, body stiff and forward, raised hackles, and curled lips are all indicators that someone is having a bad day and needs to be removed from the situation pronto! A dog who is barking and has the tail between the legs, shuddering, looking all around fearful ... well, it's pretty obvious. They are scared of the situation and should be removed from whatever they are afraid of and gradually taught not to be afraid at a later time. A dog that is loose and wriggly, yapping happily play bowing and bouncing off the walls is just plain having a great old time is just happily announcing it to the world!

The Howl
Some dogs love to howl, or bay. The sound can be mournful, an elated happy howl, a soft 'yo, I'm here! Get in here and play with me!'. Howls are communications that can vary from solid tone to rippled, melodic to dappled with whines. I have heard dogs join in chorus, and my late Shetland used to greet me when I came home with a special set of howled tones, as if to say, 'You're home! Let me tell you about my day... ' she sounded like she was gargling.

Whines and Whimpers
These sounds can be a number of things! Mostly interpretations of these will involve the situation. A dog separated from its owner might whine and whimper in hopes of getting them to come back. This separation might result in some anxiety, which typically reveals itself in shivering, a clingy dog, ears pined back, tail between the legs, wide eyes. They look distraught. A dog can also whine and whimper in excitement! For example a dog knowing its time to go outside might jump up and down and whimper for joy! The confident body posture tells all here. They're simply thrilled about what is coming up! A dog being forced to be good and sit at an owners feet might whine to get their attention. Or a dog who is injured might whimper in pain. Any time a dog is listless or has issues moving, or cries out when performing daily routines needs to see a vet.

Non-verbal
Some dogs 'smile'. It's the oddest thing I have seen. The lips lift and they 'smile'. The differentiation between this being a 'grin' and meaning 'I'm gonna bite your face off!' is typically in the tail which is going a mile a minute. That waggily tail and a play bow tells you for the most part that the dog is happy, and simply expressing itself. Showing the teeth in an aggressive manner usually presents with a stiffer posture and a fixed stiffened tail.

The uber-quiet dog. Sometimes a dog will go suddenly silent. If they were previously romping around actively and seem to 'freeze up' than odds are something has set them ill at ease. If this is not your dog, leave it alone! If this is your dog, approach with caution, or better yet try and get them to come to you. Track where their eyes are going to see what the source is--especially if there is a nervous eye dart in a direction. Is it a dog, a person, an object? This knowledge comes into play later on so you can address the stimulus issue and get the dog better adjusted.

Mounting. Boys mount girls, girls mount boys, same mounts same ... fixed and unfixed. Yes, this is an embarrassing dog lingo, but it happens. Some dogs tolerate being mounted, others it can trigger a nasty reaction! Best is to nip it in the bud and try and stop before the front paws leave the ground. A dog that is about to will generally take a sudden interest in the tail of another and follow it around with a little hop to their step.


Dogs have a complicated language that tells of how they feel. In general, a happy dog moves with a confident, gleeful gate. The facial expression can range from being relaxed to intensely playful, their tails (or sometimes rumps) waggling back and forth a mile a minute. A dog that is nervous or uncomfortable will generally have a stiff posture with a tucked tail or rump, and their facial expression will be tense with wide eyes and drawn features. The hackles might be raised and they might be shivering. An angry or annoyed dog will most likely have its tail held high, hackles raised, eyes wide, lips drawn, stiff forward posture, etc ... the later too are situations that require further time investment in training/desensitization to prevent a further situation from occurring. Know your dog, know what they are telling you.

Caution: this is a basic summary and should be considered a loose interpretation. If you do not know a dog, do not approach it without the owners consent. If you are raising a puppy/getting to know a new pet always use caution and give the animal space to get used to you and their new situation they are in. Dogs will vary, some give more forewarning of their discomfort than others. This is why recognizing the subtle signs of discomfort early on can be a blessing and prevent further mishap. Never ignore a dogs sensitivity to a stimulus. Consult a trainer or training aid to help your dog gradually learn to overcome their fear/sensitivity and help them to be comfortable with whatever they might encounter.

To a long and happy, well adjusted companionship!
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Old 08-18-2008, 09:23 PM   #2
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Great job Draco. Lots of valuable information here.
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Old 08-18-2008, 11:51 PM   #3
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Thanks for giving me the idea, Applesmom! Down the road I might do a more advanced guide to doggy body lingo as the daycare sessions reveal more to me of how the four-pawed clients are feeling. I'll have to see how much more I can pick up from the puppy patrons. Ideally I would love to compare puppies, to middle-aged, to older dogs ... let me see if I get enough material.
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Old 08-19-2008, 05:32 AM   #4
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I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article Draco. You've put a lot of your own time and effort into it.

You are in an ideal work environment to actually witness dog behavior first hand, not just for a theory perspective.

Well done!

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Old 08-19-2008, 01:11 PM   #5
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Thank you, Draco! I still have so much to learn about dogs!
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Old 08-23-2008, 02:17 PM   #6
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Good thread! Max howls if he's lonely... once we shut him out because we were doing some work in the chicken field and he was getting in the way, and his howls were just heartbreaking. Manipulative little... XD
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Old 09-08-2008, 09:14 AM   #7
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This is very informative. My sister's dog Silver a golden retriever, whines and whimpers alot during daytime, especially in the morning. (It started recently), my sister and her family went to other country and left silver to her maids. But that was like 2 years ago. Now, I know that is an indication that he misses them so much. But his whining is quite loud that their neighbor is complaining about it.
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Old 09-08-2008, 09:22 AM   #8
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Great thread Draco, it's good to see it all in black and white.

My collie is a prime example of the different growls, when she's playing you would be forgiven for thinking she's about to launch an attack, but she play bows and sings at the same time to distinguish it.
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Old 05-08-2011, 02:25 AM   #9
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Sometimes one of my dogs looks sad: ears down, tail down, a certain look in their eyes...and I swear the little one a maltese/pom mix would cry.

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Old 05-08-2011, 08:20 AM   #10
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Excellent Topic Draco! And have seen some of those things you mentioned in Nipper especialy the play bow and the rear end up in the air the front end lower than the back end and tail wagging all at the same time LOL! I have also seen the opposite when a dog has tried to mount Nipper or grab her round the neck the ears go right back etc and I nip it in the bud straight away and let the other dogs owner know what's happening some take no notice and say it's only play others will respect you I think this type of study is so important so we can all learn from this and avoid problems later on Thank you! ATB
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