How I Met My Dog

Dog Speak: How our Dogs Communicate with us and how we can Talk Back.

Of all the amazing attributes a dog has, the ability to communicate may be the most impressive. Dogs communicate with us all day long, and whether we know it or not, we’re talking right back to them through a variety of verbal and nonverbal cues.

In fact, a recent study concluded that there are 19 different signals that dogs use to talk to us. These signals are referred to as “referential signaling” which for example, is the way babies communicate with their parents. It’s also the way great apes communicate with each other. Referential signaling is rare among non-primates.

“Dogs are doing something similar to great apes, but they’re doing it across species,” said study leader Hannah Worsley.

The key for us as dog owners is to understand the gestures a dog is using and reward the dog with the desired response. Dogs want to communicate primarily through body language, and only use vocalization if needed. (Although some dogs find the need to vocalize more than others)

Here are a few of the non-verbal cues dogs use to get our attention:

Tail Language

Perhaps the most obvious to observe, but also sometimes misconstrued. Just because a dog is wagging its tail doesn’t mean it’s happy. If this is a dog you're not familiar with, consider the possibility that the tail wag is not signaling for you to pet the dog. Pay attention to the dog's ears, if they're down and not perking up the dog may be signaling that he's not comfortable. Also, pay attention to the rest of the dog’s body for stiffness.

Here are some general tail motions to remember:

  • A curled tail usually means a relaxed dog. It can also mean confidence or dominance.
  • A straight, stiff tail means a dog is tracking something closely.
  • A lower held or tucked tail means fear and submission.

Ear Language

Personally, this is my favorite way that dogs talk to us. Perky ears show us that a dog is very intrigued in what’s to come next and are highly focused. Droopy ears are a sign of submission, while ears pinned back mean the dog is unhappy and uncomfortable. Generally, the more flattened the ears are, the more submissive the dog is being, whereas the perkier the ears, the more interested the dog is.

Eye Language

Dogs do so much with their eyes. Eye talk is a close second in my rankings of favorite dog languages. Sad puppy eyes are the most apparent way dogs use their eyes, quite effectively in this case.

A dog may close his or her eyes in pleasure when receiving a particularly enjoyable belly rub or scratching behind the ears.

When you can see the whites of a dog’s eyes, they are on high alert and want space. 

An unblinking dog may be showing signs of aggression, but most likely when your dog is staring at you, it’s just to get your attention.

Generally, if you're making direct eye contact with your dog, he or she will likely hold the contact for a bit but then look away submissively. When avoiding eye contact altogether, your dog is uncomfortable and is again showing signs of submission.

Mouth Language

Do dogs smile? The answer to that question is often yes, so the real question becomes, what does that smile mean? You’ll be able to quickly tell if the smile is a sign of contentedness by seeing ears forward, relaxed eyes and a big open mouth with a floppy tongue.

When dogs bare their teeth, this is a sign of is unhappiness and potentially both fear and aggression.

Body Language in Context

Always consider the context of the situation when trying to decipher what your dog is saying to you. Also, try not to focus in on one motion, and pay attention to your dog’s entire body language. If you pay attention to these cues contextually, you should discover what your dog is trying to communicate, much to your dog's delight.

Here are some familiar cues that dogs give to humans and how to interpret them:

What does it mean when my dog yawns?

When a dog yawns, it can be difficult sometimes to understand whether the yawn is a positive or negative. Dogs will yawn when they’re stressed but may also yawn when they’re anticipating something fun. Some dogs will yawn around other dogs during playtime to say, “calm down.” Using the context of the situation can generally tell you what the yawn means. Either way, do something nice for your dog if you see him or her yawn.

What does it mean when my dog barks?

While dogs barking isn't usually the most delightful sound in the world, a bark can also be interpreted in different ways. If a dog has been patiently communicating with you using non-verbal cues to no effect, he may decide that barking is the only way to get your attention.

Don't interpret this type of bark the wrong way; your dog is just talking to you! Your dog may be barking because they need to do their business outside, or maybe their favorite toy got stuck under the couch. In this type of situation, your dog probably has a pretty good reason for getting your attention.

Other barks, of the more annoying variety, may be to alert the family of a new arrival to the house. These barks can be both out of fear, and out of excitement. They can also be trained out of a dog, but this will take time and patience.

What does it mean when my dog tilts its head?

Dogs tilt their heads because they’re listening more intently. Think of your dog’s ears as an antenna. When something startles them, or they hear a sound they haven’t heard before, they’ll tilt their head to readjust their antenna, their ears, towards the sound. This behavior is inherently built into dogs and happens instinctually.

Why does my dog lick me?

Sometimes you taste good. No really, sometimes dogs want to lick the salt off our face. There is a much more scientific reason for this though. Licking is a behavior that dogs have learned since birth. When dogs are newly born puppies, their mother will lick them to stimulate breathing and to clean them off. From an early age, puppies will affectionately lick their mother’s mouth. Going in for a big sloppy kiss on the mouth is often your dog’s way of signaling love and respect (or that they want to clean off your leftover lunch).

Why is my dog sneezing?

When dogs are sneezing, it's more likely due to excitement and anticipation than because of a human reason for sneezing. My dog Ava will sneeze uncontrollably sometimes during play as she gets more and more excited. If this isn't normal behavior for your dog though, the sneezing could be due to an irritant in their nose and might require a checkup at the vet.

Playtime sneezing comes from the way dogs interact with each other. Much of dog communication is meant to keep the peace, both with their human companions and with their fellow furballs. Sneezing is a way for dogs to tell each other “don’t take it personally, this is playtime.”

How can I talk to my dog?

Once we understand how our dogs are talking to us, then we can be better equipped at speaking back to them. Dogs will pick up on the same non-verbal cues they give to us. Hand motions, eye movements, and head tilts will be readily picked up by a dog. Once a dog learns the moves, start speaking a command to go along with that movement. Through trial and error, you will learn what commands your dog picks up on best and continually improve the flow of communication.

Dogs are Natural Peacekeepers

If your dog is in peace-keeping mode, reassure them that everything is alright by playfully petting them and saying encouraging words. It’s often not the actual words that dogs are picking up on, and more the tone in which we say the words.

“Perhaps dogs use the intonation to initially attend to the speech, and then recognize whether the words you are using are related to them or not," said Alex Benjamin to National Geographic. Benjamin co-authored a study at the University of York which showed that dogs prefer our version of “baby talk” to regular speech.

Dog-Directed Speech

We all do it, baby talking to our dogs. It’s seemingly impossible not to, and now there’s a scientific study showing a good reason for why we do it: our dogs prefer it.

Like actual baby talk to a newborn child, speaking this way to dogs when they're puppies helps them to understand our language better. This is done by exaggerating our speech and making vowels sound clearer and more high-pitched.

So, you don't have to feel weird baby-talking to your dog. The study preferred to call it "dog-directed speech" and I like that a lot better.

Whether you're using "dog-directed speech" or have mastered talking to your dog with hand motions, the flow of communication between dogs and humans is undeniably impressive. Some of these forms of talking will take time to perfect, while your dog will quickly adopt other ways of talking. Watch carefully for how your dog speaks to you, and you'll be much better equipped for finding ways to talk back.

Helping Hands

Hand signals function as an extra tool for your dog to follow when learning obedience commands.Think of your hands as a training GPS to give your dog all the help they need to be successful.

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