Dog Communication: The Senses and Common Dog Behaviors

Have you ever looked at your dog and thought ‘I wonder what’s going through their mind?’  Well, I can tell you I have, and on more than one occasion too. But the truth is, your dog is probably telling you what their thinking, using dog communication. But as a human, it can be a bit hard to understand dog language.  Especially when half of the language is dog smell. That’s why I put together this handy guide to how dogs communicate. It’s vital to understand what your dog is telling you, especially if they are trying out their new dog house.

This guide to general dog communication and dog behavior will help you understand what your dog is telling you, even when they may not know they are telling you anything at all.  From body language and appearance to sounds and smells, we’ll take a deep dive into the dark and mysterious sea that is dog communication. Let’s jump in with the basics.

Dog Communication 101

Dogs, like Humans, utilize the 5 senses.  Sight, Sound, Touch, Taste, and Smell are the traditional 5 senses.  These I believe are really and truthfully only 4 senses as taste and smell can be blended together in my opinion.  For this reason, we are going to look at 4 of the senses and how dogs use them to communicate.

Dog Communication – Sight

The gift of sight is a wondrous thing to comprehend.  But how does sight work? The only way we can know how a dog can see is to know what sight is in the first place.  Let’s start things off by looking at what and how sight is and how it works. We’ll also take a look at the differences between human sight and dog sight.

How Sight Works

Diagram of the Human eye, virtually the same in structure as a Dog eye.
The Structure of the Eye

Basically, sight is the sensing of light particles as they are reflected from an object or thing.  The light particles are sensed by photoreceptive cells within the eye organ. The eye then sends an electrical impulse via the optic nerve to the part of the brain which processes the signals sent from the eyes.  This part of the brain is called the Occipital Lobe in humans. It is located at the back of the brain. The Parietal Lobe, which is also at the rear of the brain, but just above the Occipital Lobe, has some degree of relationship to vision as well, as it is responsible for spatial relativity recognition within the brain of Humans.

A picture of the human brain.
Cerebral lobes: the frontal lobe (pink), parietal lobe(green) and occipital lobe (blue)
By derivative work of this – Gutenberg Encyclopedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2204932

Dogs Communication is heavily reliant on vision.  As such, dogs see a slightly different spectrum than humans do.  As you can see in the image below, humans see slightly more in one part of the color spectrum than dogs and vice versa.

A diagram comparing human and dog vision in the light spectrum.
By Steffen Heinz (Caronna) – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1437788

How Dogs Communicate With Sight

If you’ve ever seen an angry dog, you’ll know they are very expressive visually.  There are three major aspects to dogs’ visual communication and these are as follows.

  1. Facial Expressions
  2. Body Language
  3. Tail Language

Dog Communication With Facial Expressions & Head Movements

Dogs, like Humans, utilize facial expressions to communicate.  The facial expressions dogs communicate with are rudimentary compared to humans, but that doesn’t negate the fact that it is a vitally important aspect of dogs’ visual communications.  The most obvious example of this communication is when a dog bares its teeth.

Baring of Teeth

Meaning – When a dog bares its teeth it is typically for one of a couple of reasons.  

  1. Fear – the dog is afraid and will bare its teeth to scare off what is making the dog feel afraid, nervous or anxious
  2. Anger – a dog will bare its teeth when it is angry.  For example, a tired dog who is being bothered by small children or even puppies may bare its teeth as a way of saying ‘No, I don’t want to be bothered!’.  This is a warning sign to back off or get bitten.
Tilting Head

Meaning – When a dog is not understanding something, but paying close attention and attempting to understand, they will often tilt their head to one side or another.  This gesture indicates that they do not understand. You’ve likely seen this expression when trying to train a dog for the first time.

Ears Perking Up

Meaning Dog’s ears will perk upward suddenly when they have noticed something via sound or sight.  They often orient their ears in the direction of the sound or sight which caught their attention.  This is a pre-indicator that your dog may get up and/or start running in the direction of whatever has caught their attention.  It may also indicate that the dog is about to start barking in alarm of whatever has caught their attention.

Ears Pressed Back

Meaning – Dogs will pull in their ears close to their head and neck for one of three reasons, typically speaking.

  1. Fear – If a dog is afraid, it will tuck its ears in close to its head or neck. The indicator that it could be fear is a lack of baring teeth (but not always, depending on how afraid the dog is) and typically the dog will also tuck in its tail close to its body.
  2. Anger – When combined with growling, baring teeth, this can be a sign of anger.
  3. Submission – If a dog tucks its tail and does not bare its teeth, then this is an indication of submissive behavior.  Your dog will likely do this when you yell at them for ripping apart your slippers while you were at work for example.
Eye Contact

Meaning – Dog communication via eye contact is always an interesting one.  Dogs will shy away from making eye contact except for pretty much one reason – anger and aggression.  If not angry, a dog will do what it can to avoid direct eye contact.

Licking

Meaning – Always a friendly gesture, dogs only lick to add to their smell and as a way of saying hello and showing affection.  A dog will never lick and growl at you at the same time, for example. If a dog licks you, it’s not likely going to attack unless you provoke it to do so.

Dog Communication With Body Language

Standing Up Tall

Meaning – When a dog ‘stands at attention’, so to speak, it can mean one of a few things.  

  1. Dominant Behavior – The dog is asserting its dominance.  This is typically accompanied by holding the head high and above the horizontal position as well as the tail in a full upright or even curled over towards the head position.
  2. Alert And/Or Curious – A dog will stand full upright front and rear quarters when it is trying to see or hear something which has caught its attention.  This is usually accompanied by the ears perking upward. The tail position is not necessarily upward when it is an alerting or curious behavior.
  3. Playful – Sometimes dogs position themselves as apparently standing at attention just before lowering their front end and a springing or bouncing around motion.  This is a playful body language move that typically only lasts a second due to the dog’s playful and excited behavior.
Lowering Front End

Meaning – A dog will lower its chest to the ground and keep its rear upward.  This body position is typical for one of three reasons.

  1. Anger – This position will be accompanied by baring teeth, growling or barking.  It is a precursor to attack so watch out.
  2. Submission and Affection – If accompanied by lowering the snout and tucking of the tail, this can be a submissive gesture.  When affectionate, the dog will lower its front end, and also raise its snout upward toward you. Typically accompanied by much licking and affectionate behavior.
  3. Playfulness – A dog will often take this position when playing with a favorite toy.
Rolling Over

Meaning – This is a purely submissive gesture.  Dogs communicate by rolling over to bare their soft stomachs to a dominant dog or human.  This is their way of saying, ‘I am yours.’ as it is exposing their underbelly to potential attack.  The dog is letting you know you are the boss when they make this maneuver. Dogs will also make this move when scared and can even pee upwards from this position if very frightened.  You really shouldn’t see that unless you start your dog from a dead sleep. Sometimes puppies will do this when being scolded for the first time.

Dog Communication With The Tail

Tail Straight Up

Meaning – When a dog holds its tail straight up or even curled towards the head, this is a sign of dominant behavior.  A dog will do this when angry or when annoyed. They will also do this when trying to let you or someone or another dog know who they feel is in charge.  A spunky dog may do this when ‘talking back’ to you for scolding it. It may be accompanied by the growling or baring of teeth which indicates aggressive behavior above and beyond just being dominant behavior.

Wagging The Tail

Meaning – Wagging its tail, back and forth, is a positive maneuver.  A dog will wag its tail to show approval, happiness and show agreement.  For example, if your dog is begging because it needs to go outside and you ask it if it needs to go out, the dog will wag its tail to show you ‘Yes, I agree.’.  Dogs typically only wag their tail when they are happy and/or positive about something. Typically you will see your dog wag its tail when it is happy to see you after work, for example.

Tail Tucking

Meaning – Ever hear that expression ‘Like a puppy with its tail between its legs’?  This expression comes from puppy training. Often when training a puppy, if the puppy is being scolded, it will tuck its tail between its legs in a sign of submission and/or guilt.  When a dog knows it has done something wrong, it will often give itself away by walking around with its tail close to its body. Dogs do this when they feel guilty for something they know they shouldn’t have done.  They also do this as a sign of submission.

Submissive and Dominant

If two dogs meet, for example, one dog may hold its tail high in the air and the other dog tucks its tail in close to its body. The communication between the two dogs is saying that the dog holding its tail up is the dominant dog and the dog holding its tail down and close to its body is the passive dog.  You can often tell how happy a dog is by how high the dog is holding their tail as well.

Dog Communication – Sound

How Sound Works

Sounds are micro-vibrations of the atmosphere.  Sounds are produced by all manner of events and occurrences.  Anything which can vibrate the air or another medium surrounding it can make a sound.  Sound waves are vibrations that travel away from the point of origin. Think of sound like waves of water in a pool.  If you drop a pebble into a pool of water, waves of water will travel outward, away from the pebble. These waves will reflect off things like the edges of the pool, and bounce around until they cancel themselves out.  Sounds are simply waves traveling in the surrounding medium from the source. When it comes to dogs, this, of course, would typically be sound waves traveling in the air from the point of origin to the dog’s ears.

The process of earing is a process of stages of cause and effect.  When a sound wave travels to the ear, it bounces down the ear canal and hits the eardrum.  The eardrum vibrates and in turn, moves tiny bones. These tiny bones then jiggle against the fluid-filled cochlea.  The cochlea has tiny hair-like structures in it which then sway with the fluid moving inside the cochlea. The hair-like structures trigger cells to send electric pulses to the auditory nerve which travels to the brain.  The brain processes these signals depending on which type of sound was heard and from which type of receptor a hair-like cell sent the signal.

Check out this cool video that explains how hearing works.

Humans may be smarter than dogs (some would even debate this fact), but when it comes to sound, dogs have us beat.  Dogs can hear typically between 67 Hz – 45 kHz [Source].  Humans, on the other hand, can hear a range of 20 Hz – 20 kHz.  Dogs will tilt their ears toward the sound that has caught their attention.  They do this by moving their ears with 18 or more muscles that control the ear.  Dogs use their ears like small radar dishes, turning them toward the direction of sounds.  

How Dogs Communicate With Sound

Dogs communicate with sound in several different ways.  The first and most obvious breakdown of this subject is incoming sound and outgoing sound.

Incoming Sounds

Dogs’ hearing is not only superior to humans in their sensitivity but as mentioned, dogs also hear a different range, higher than that of humans.  For this reason, dogs have a different perception of the sounds of the world than we do. For example, dog whistles can be heard by dogs at great distances yet cannot be heard by humans at all.

Dogs use incoming sounds the same way humans do.  To track local interests and to receive communication from other life whether it be dogs, cats, humans or others.  We are all familiar with dog squeaking toys for example. This is instinctual desire dogs have to hear squeaking from a toy.  This desire stems back to dogs’ inherent nature as a predator. A small prey animal will typically make a squeaking noise when being attacked so this noise tends to get dogs excited and alert.  

Outgoing Sounds

Dogs communicate by making vocalizations similar in the way that humans do, although seemingly more simplistic.  Dogs have four basic vocalizations: Barking, Growling, Whimpering & Begging and Crying or Yelping as some may call it.

Barking

Meaning – Dogs typically bark to alert you of something they feel is a pressing or urgent matter.  A dog will bark to frighten away another animal or person. They will bark to warn you of something that either frightens or excites them.  They may also bark when afraid.

Growling

Meaning – Similar to barking, dogs will growl out of fear, anger or excitement.  If accompanied by baring teeth, growling is typically thought of as a negative communication stemming from fear, anger or anxiety.  The flip-side to this is, of course, playful growling. This is done usually when a dog is playing with a toy, perhaps having a rousing game of tug-of-war.

Whimpering/Begging

Meaning – Dogs will whimper or beg when they are either upset, in pain or asking for something.  This is usually associated with submissive behavior. Observing accompanying body language will tell you the reason, or maybe you are eating something and if this is the case, the dog is asking you to give it a treat.  Sometimes dogs will whimper or beg when asking to go outside or if they are not feeling well. This is why this is important communication to pay attention to.

Crying or Yelping

Meaning – Crying and yelping are the next, more extreme versions of whimpering or begging.  Dogs will make this noise if they are very upset, being injured or think they will be injured or in great distress. Depending on a dog’s ability to act, they may do this if their personality gives them drama queen characteristics. A normal, balanced dog typically will only make this noise when something is very wrong or they are very upset.  My dog used to make this noise when I would leave for work in the morning until it got used to me leaving for part of the day that is.

Dog Communication – Touch

How Touch Works

The sense of touch is quite easy to understand.  Skin cells sense different pressures, vibrations and surface structures.  Unlike humans, as dogs do not have hands, they have a limited sense of touch compared to humans.  The skin cells that sense a touch send a signal to the brain via the nervous system. This allows the brain to sense the feeling of touch and thus react to it.

How Dogs Communicate With Touch

Bumping, Leaning and Rubbing Against You

Meaning – Have you ever gone over to a friend’s house, or maybe you were out talking with a neighbor, and their dog comes over and leans against you?  When its a big dog, you sure notice this behavior, let me tell you! Dogs will do this to show affection. They also do this as a cheeky way of claiming friendship.  Some dogs, I believe, even do this in an attempt to make their owners jealous, by showing affection to another human. Next time a dog leans its weight against you, see if it’s looking at its owner to see if they are looking.  Cheeky dogs, I tell ya!

Pawing

Meaning – Dogs will paw at you with their front paw or paws when they are trying to get your attention.  Just like a kid yanking on your shirt and repeating your name over and over to get your attention, this is exactly what a dog is doing when it paws at you.  They could be asking you for food, to go outside, or even to play. Dogs are very intelligent but lack our ability to form complex vocalizations so they can’t always ask you directly for something.  If a dog is pawing at you pay attention because they might need to go to the bathroom.

Licking

Meaning – As mentioned above in the head movements communication, licking is usually a positive signal from a dog.  The dog is either smelling/tasting you (not likely they will be eating you next so don’t fret), or saying hello/giving you kisses.  You will notice that your dog will happily try to lick you while wagging its tail if you just got home. Licking is usually a sign of affection and happiness.

Dog Communication – Smell

Sometimes I have to wonder what dogs like and what they don’t in terms of smell.  I wrote an article on plants dogs hate, based upon smell which you can read by clicking here.

How Smell Works

I discussed the basics of how smell works in my article Why Dogs Noses Are Wet.  Basically, it’s all about chemistry here. Smell works by having microscopic molecules floating in the air.  A dog’s nose will catch these molecules which make their way to receptor cells. Smells between dogs are the language of pheromone molecules.  This is one of the main ways dogs communicate with each other and its why they are always smelling each other’s rear ends. The pheromones their bodies release indicate sex, sexual readiness, whether they are relatives or not and many believe even fear gives off pheromones that can be detected.  Dog’s ability to smell is extremely fine-tuned compared to humans. This is why it can be hard to understand how dogs may want to eat things that humans find smell repulsive.

How Dogs Communicate With Smell

As mentioned above, dogs communicate with the use of chemistry.  That is, Pheromones to be exact. Pheromones tell all kinds of things about an animal.  Pheromones tell which sex the dog is, whether they are receptive to breeding, whether they are a relative, general health and more.  Certain feelings can even trigger pheromone responses and dogs are no stranger to sniffing these out.

Smelling Accurately

Dog’s sense of smell is so accurate that authorities even use dogs to sniff out bombs and drugs.  Neither of these tasks could ever be achieved by a human as we are nose blind compared to our furry friends.  Dogs in the family of Hounds have a particularly keen sense of smell. The Hound family has been utilized for generations for their abilities as trackers, using that keen sense of smell.  Many hounds smell is so accurate they cannot only track people but individual people, just by their smell alone.

According to Lynn Buzhardt, DVM of VCA Pet Hospitals, dogs can move their nostrils independently to point them towards the direction of the smell.  This is similar to their ability to turn their ears towards a sound. Dogs have an amazing, almost superhero-like ability when it comes to smelling things.  It’s a good thing they are humans best friend so we can take advantage of their amazing powers.

Want to learn more?  See our Resources Page for links to all kinds of great information.

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