Dogs are social animals that make use of various communication methods to convey a wide range of emotions to other dogs in their pack, or to their human companions. If you know what to look for and listen for, you’ll be able to read your dog’s emotional state almost effortlessly. High profile dog trainers have demonstrated time and again that by reading the dog’s emotional state, it is possible to effectively communicate with and rehabilitate even those dogs that have aggressive behaviors.
There are so many subtleties and nuances involved in all forms of communication, and canine communications are no different. Dogs use a series of movements and sounds as a part of their communication, and it goes a lot deeper than a wagging tail or bark. It can even help you to determine whether your dog is taking a dominant stance toward you, or whether he is acting in a submissive manner.
In the wild, dogs need to incorporate a range of communication methods to ensure that they get along well with the other members of their pack. Submissive gestures could have your dog rolling onto his back, exposing his belly and throat, and whimpering. His tail could be down low or it may be tucked between his legs up against his belly. This form of submission is not typically seen in domesticated dogs unless they are around other dogs with more dominant personalities, or they are responding to an angry tone in your voice.
While on the topic of vocalizations, you are likely familiar with your dog’s bark and perhaps whining or whimpering sounds he makes to let you know that he needs to go outside. Dogs use a number of vocalizations to express their emotions.
Barking is not just used as an expression of warning while protecting their home from unfamiliar sounds or people. Barking can also be due to the dog feeling bored, lonely, fearful, stressed, or even happy. Happy and excited barks are typically higher pitched than the deep warning-types of barks. A dog that is afraid or that suffers from separation anxiety may bark in a high-pitched and frustratingly repetitive manner. Dogs may also howl with separation anxiety.
Growling is most often associated with being an expression of aggression. While that is most often the case, growling can be for a variety of other reasons. This is one form of canine communication that pet owners are often urged to take a lot more seriously than a bark. A bark may just be a loud expression of, “I’m here, and I’m loud. Stay away from my home.” But a growl can be a threat that all is not copasetic with the dog and what he is experiencing. Perhaps you have picked him up and he doesn’t want to be held.
His growl will typically start off as being a low-toned rumbling growl, and he may bare his teeth. If you do not heed the warning of the growl, the pitch of the growl will grow steadily higher until the dog either barks or bites. Now growling can also be an expression of playfulness, but puppies and young dogs are much more likely to express other signals demonstrating that they are excited to play. Your dog may bounce around and growl or yip all at once.
Take growling seriously, especially if you are dealing with an unfamiliar dog.
Whining and whimpering can indicate a range of emotions in your dog. Whining could be expressed when the dog is hungry, needs to go outside, or just wants a bit of your attention. A whimper can be an indication that the dog is in pain and is most often used as a means of communicating distress. Whining that is associated with needing to go outside or a wagging tail and alert ears could accompany simply wanting your attention. Whimpers on the other hand are typically accompanied by the tail being tucked between the dog’s legs; unless the whimpers and yelps are being used as an expression of excitement, such as when you get home after leaving the dog on his own all day.
Body movements that could include the tail, head, ears, mouth, and the baring of teeth accompany the majority of vocalizations.
A wagging tail is most often associated with being happy or excited, but it can actually also be a signal of aggression. If it is aggression then it will likely be accompanied by other aggressive signals, like a growl or the hackles on the back being raised. A bristled tail is also typically seen as being a sign of aggression or fear, but should definitely be taken as a warning. If the tail is being held up high, the dog can be seen as being on alert, whereas the tail tucked underneath his body is a signal of being afraid or submissive.
Your dog may just thump his tail on the ground when you walk into the room where he is laying down. This is done as an acknowledgement of your entering the room, and as a sign that he is happy to see you.
The position of your dog’s ears will be one of the stronger indications of his emotional state. The position of the ears will vary based upon the type of ears that your dog has, naturally. But can typically still be readily deciphered whether your dog has floppy ears like a Labrador, or pricked up ears like a German Shepherd. Ears that are erect and forward facing can typically be seen as being indicative of a high level of attentiveness. Your dog may be listening to your voice, or simply taking in his surroundings. Ears that are laid back against their head are often thought to be a submissive gesture, but can also be seen as being aggressive, particularly if there is growling or snarling involved.
A snarl or the baring of the teeth that is accompanied by a low growl should be seen as a warning, and you should heed caution around the dog. Some dogs will retract their lips while playing or in a happy mood, this can typically be seen in dogs that are submissive and also displaying other signs of excitement.
Licking is a very familiar and friendly form of dog communication and is typically used as a gesture of affection or friendliness. It is also used as a method of social bonding in a pack environment, similar to the grooming that cats will do to one another.
The way in which your dog holds his head can also be indicative of his emotions. Dogs often tilt their heads to the side, with their ears alert, when they hear a sound for the first time. They often also perform this gesture as a response to a familiar sound or word. A head that is bowed can often be seen as a sign of submission, whereas a head that is craned forward and is accompanied by other signs indicative of aggression could be a warning.
There are truly countless combinations of body language and vocalizations that could indicate what your dog is trying to convey to you. By spending time with your dog you will soon become well attuned to his own special form of canine communication, and will even be able to readily read his emotions simply by the way he wags his tail or arches his eyebrow.