Article: Behavior » Communication
Dog communication refers to body 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, head, tail, and entire body, as well as barks, growls, whines and whimpers, and howls.
Interpreting animal body language
A dog might stretch after taking a nap, just as humans do, or might drop into a stretch to lead into a play bow or to calm a human or other dog.
It is important to note that while many gestures and actions may have common, stereotypical meanings, researchers regularly find that animal communication is often more complex and subtle than previously believed, and that the same gesture may have multiple distinct meanings depending on context and other behaviors. So, generalizations such as “X means Y” are often, but not always accurate. For example, even a simple tail wag may (depending on context) convey many meanings including:
- Happiness, self-confidence
There is a simple way to tell the difference though. Just like humans show more happiness on the right side of their face, dogs swing their tail more to the right when they’re happy and vise-versa. Combined with other body language, in a specific context, many gestures such as yawns and direction of vision all convey the dog’s emotions or feeling states. Thus statements that a particular action “means” something, or that the dog is using its body language with the intent to report information to others, should be avoided. In Consciousness Explained, Daniel C. Dennett of Tufts University, tells us that there are two basic forms of communication: the unconscious expression of a mental or emotional state, and the intentional act of reporting information. He goes on to say that there are many ways of expressing a mental or emotional state, “but only one way of reporting information, and that is through the use of language, written, spoken, or signed.” It’s also important to note that most of the body language exhibited by human beings isn’t done consciously, with the intent to communicate, so it could be mistake to believe that dogs intentionally use their body language to report information to others.
One of the first forms of communication that will be observed is the greeting ritual. When a dog first encounters another dog, a brief assessment of aggression or friendliness is made. If one dog growls or barks, for instance, the encounter will usually end quickly, either by the other dog avoiding the encounter, or by a fight ensuing. If this test is passed, the dogs usually attempt to greet each other. This is done first by sniffing each others odors. Dogs often sniff each others anuses simultaneously, and this is the clearest indication of what some in the field believe to be a greeting ritual. This so-called greeting ritual is said to establish the identities of the dogs by scent, and is the dogs’ way of saying ‘hello’ to each other. However, most people miss an important observation: even dogs who know each other very well will sniff one another when they first run into each other on the street. Dogs who live in multiple dog households will also sniff each other from time to time (for instance, if one dog gets up to get a drink of water while another dog is asleep, that dog might go over and sniff his housemate on his way to the water bowl). Dogs who are playing will sometimes get too wound up, stop, shake themselves off, then sniff each other before resuming their play session. So the idea that sniffing is just a greeting ritual is probably a misunderstanding.
If the dogs are satisfied with the encounter (it is not unusual for dogs to take a sudden dislike to each other at this stage), then they may either move on in disinterest, or proceed further in the greeting ritual by showing affection. Affection is shown by some or all of the following: Wagging the tail, licking the face, playful barking, panting, or jumping (including playful jumping on the other dog). Dogs that show affection in this way will usually get along fairly well, and this display can be considered a display of friendship.
Humans can also participate in a greeting ritual with a newly met dog, by bending down in front of (not looming over) or kneeling down to the dog, and slowly but confidently extending the hand to be sniffed in front of and just below the dog’s snout. If the dog is timid or has a habit of snapping at strangers, it is best to allow the dog to come sniff your hand, rather than extending it into the dog’s space (this can make the dog nervous) while using words of praise in a calm, soothing voice. To limit the chance of getting bitten, keep the hand palm-down with fingers cupped downward or the hand fully closed in a loose fist, making it difficult for the dog to grab hold of a finger in a bite. Be watchful of the dog’s demeanor. If the dog makes a sudden snap at your hand, try not to pull it away as that will only reinforce and increase the dog’s desire to bite you. Any object moving away from a dog triggers an instinctive urge to bite. However, if you continue praising the dog in a soothing voice, even if it’s just snapped at you, the dog is much less likely to get frightened and will more than likely sniff your hand in a friendly manner.
After the dog has completed the hand-sniff, it is possible to proceed to making physical contact by gently petting the dog on its chest or shoulders. Attempting to pet the top of the head can create a nervous response because the movement of the hand toward the head may interrupt the dog’s ability to see your eyes, thereby assessing your emotional state. Again, it is possible to get snapped at, so care should be taken not to block the dog’s ability to see your eyes. If the dog does snap, the best course of action is not pull your hand away suddenly, but to keep praising the dog in a soothing tone. If the dog completes the sniff without snapping or barking, another attempt to pet the dog can be made.
Once the dog allows the affectionate petting, it will more likely only take a quick hand-sniff on the next meeting for the person to attempt petting the dog. Petting can at this time become more playful without risking the dog snapping at the person.
The dog is showing signs of fear aggression. Notice the lowered head, body down, foot pointing, raised back hair, ready to pounce hind legs and focused attention.
For timid or mildly aggressive dogs, it may not be possible to establish friendship in one greeting ritual. Friendship cannot be forced, and may require repeated attempts over time.
Aggression during the greeting ritual
Some breeds of dog have a more suspicious or aggressive temperament by nature and are more difficult or dangerous to approach with the greeting ritual.
Dogs that have been physically abused tend to be much more timid and defensive than a well-treated dog, so great care should be taken before trying to perform the greeting ritual with such a dog, as these dogs are more prone to react aggressively. Some dogs are also trained to be aggressive, such as guard dogs.
Dominance and Submission
Dominance and submission are often mistaken to be part of normal social behaviors for dogs. They are not. Wild canines form packs specifically for the purpose of hunting large prey. Evolutionary biologist Raymond Coppinger has noted that wolves that live near garbage dumps, and therefore don’t need to hunt large prey, don’t form packs. He also states that coyotes, which are more solitary than wolves, sometimes form packs, but only when they need to hunt large prey. In Dog Language, biologist Roger Abrantes has noted that it’s easier for a group of wolves to hunt large prey by working together. So pack formation in canines seems to be a function of prey size more than dominance and submission.
The idea that dogs exhibit dominant and submissive behaviors is based partly on behaviors seen in captive wolves that were culled from various sources, didn’t know one another, and weren’t able to hunt together. David Mech of the University of Minnesota has been studying wild wolf packs since the 1960s. Mech states that in wild packs “dominance” displays are so rare as to be totally nonexistent. The only time they seem to take place is when a conflict emerges between the pack parents over how to disburse food to the young. The female invariably wins these encounters by acting as “non-threatening” (or submissive) as possible. Rudolph Schenkel was the first biologist to ask the question, if the “submissive” wolf always wins, who’s really dominant? Also, since “dominance aggression” in dogs can be treated with anti-anxietal medications, it’s more likely that this behavior is an expression of stress or anxiety, and is not a natural part of the canine social instincts. (Mech (1999) asserted that the significance of dominance relationships within pack society has been overrated, and he argued that wolf packs are best understood as family groups in which a breeding pair “shares leadership in a division of labor system in which the breeding female initiates pup care and the breeding male leads in foraging and food provisioning”.
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 them 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. A large percentage of the victims of dog bites are bitten while the dog is wagging its tail.
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.
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.
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, while ears laid back suggests a negative, usually fearful or a timid reaction. They also lay their ears back for the sounds surrounding them. 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 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.
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
While dogs don’t have actual eyebrows, they do have a distinctive ridge above their eyes, and some breeds, like the Labrador Retriever, Rottweiler, 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
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 it’s feet, alternating it’s 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.
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.
Some adult dogs that were not properly raised have been known to challenge their owners for alpha position. One of the signs, though this is rarely seen in dogs, involves the dog slightly lowering its head while standing tall with its eyes fixed upward at the owner or any human beings they are about to challenge (start a fight with). This behavior is extremely rare and usually occurs with dogs that have been severely neglected or in some cases, abused. This can also be dangerous and sometimes fatal if no action is taken immediately. However, this behavior is preventable if owners avoid being neglectful or abusive to their dogs.
Dogs bark for many reasons, such as when perceived intruders (humans, dogs, or other animals) 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Though the phenomenon is often not discussed, some dogs, followed by personal curiosities through observing the vocalization of the humans around them, may try to repeat human speech sounds, or are trained to do so. This kind of vocalization is typically achieved after lengthy training with positive reinforcement techniques. It’s more likely that the dog is exhibiting these behaviors not because they “want” to communicate with humans, but is rather instead a previously reinforced behavior for a reward. Recent examples have included a whimpering pug on the Late Show with David Letterman.
- Consciousness Explained by Daniel C. Dennett, 1992, ISBN 978-0316180665
- DOGS: A Startling New Understanding… by Raymond and Lorna Coppinger, 2002, ISBN 978-0684855301
- Dog Language by Roger Abrantes, 3rd Ed. 2001, ISBN 978-0966048407
- “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
- “Asymmetric tail-wagging responses by dogs to different emotive stimuli”, Current Biology, 17(6), 20 March 2007, pp R199-R201
- Derr, Mark. “Dogs’ Vocalizations Aren’t All Bark”. New York Times News Service. Retrieved 2008-01-04.
- INTRODUCTION: “Leadership behavior in relation to dominance and reproductive status in gray wolves, Canis lupus,” Rolf O. Peterson, Amy K. Jacobs, Thomas D. Drummer, L. David Mech, and Douglas W. Smith, Canadian Journal of Zoology, Vol. 80, 2002, p. 1406)
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