Have you ever wondered what your dog would say if they could talk? Unfortunately, while there’s good evidence that your canine companion can learn around 165 human words they can’t chat back to you. There have been technological attempts to improve doggy-person communication, but they’re more of a novelty than a serious communication tool.
Until the tech advances, we’ll have to rely on the old fashioned methods- reading body language and listening out for the barks, whines and growls that let us know what our canine friends are saying. You might be thinking that it’s a simple matter of tail-wag means happy, growl means angry, but really it’s more complex than that.
Here are a few pointers as to what different signals your dog might be sending may mean. Of course, just like with people, they’re part of a package of communications, so be weary of reading too much into one signal.
Traditional wisdom tells us that dogs wag their tails when they’re happy, and this is true to a certain extent. However, they might wag their tails for all kinds of other reasons- research shows that what a wag really means is that they’re emotionally aroused- sometimes this might mean happy, sometimes it might mean something else.
Basically, the faster the wag, the more emotional the dog is feeling. When they see you, you might get a long, slow wag- they’re happy to see you. A dog you’ve never met before might give shorter, faster tail twitches which could mean that they’re excited to meet someone new, nervous or even feeling aggressive.
Research suggests that there are subtle patterns which can be decoded in a wag. Tails are more likely to wag to the right when a dog is feeling positive and to the left when they’re faced with something that makes them feel negative.
How a dog holds their tail can give us clues about how they’re feeling. The basic rule is the higher the tail, the more confident and assertive they are. If a tail points downwards or is tucked between the legs, your dog is scared or stressed. If they’re being held neutrally, they’re feeling pretty chilled out.
Of course, tails change between breeds which means where neutral is changes too. Some pups, like Chow Chows and poodles have tails which naturally sit fairly high (or even up over their backs), others, like greyhounds point downwards. The only way to really read a tail is to know the dog and how they usually use theirs.
This is an easy one to read, right? The hair on the back of a dog’s neck and shoulders standing up is a definite warning sign- right? Again, it’s not that simple.
Like wagging, what this means is that the dog is emotionally aroused. This could be aggression, but it could also be excited or simply fascinated by something. Fluffed up hair is an involuntary response in most dogs.
How your dog holds herself can tell you a lot about what they’re thinking.
If a dog is feeling stressed or scared, they may crouch low to the ground with their weight shifted backwards. What they’re doing here is trying to make themselves smaller. Even further along this path, they may roll onto their backs and expose their bellies- usually this is just them looking for a tummy rub, but it can also be a sign of extreme stress.
On the other end of the scale, a dog pushing its weight forward with their tail and head in the air is trying to look bigger and get closer. This might simply be that it’s very interested in something, but it could also be an aggressive signal.
Another common stance that you’ll see your pooch perform is what’s called the play-bow. They stretch out their front paws and raise their back ends. This is a fairly universal signal that they want to play with another dog or a person.
How do you tell when a person is happy? One simple clue might be that they’re smiling. Dogs also have a range of facial expressions and cues.
Dogs smile too, but different types of grin can mean very different things.
Lips pulled back, showing all the teeth is a warning. Your dog is effectively saying “Look what I have. Don’t make me use them”. This is a fairly easy to read expression- though hopefully it’s not one you’ll ever see. It’s often accompanied by raised hackles, a sharply wagging tail and a growl.
On the other end of the spectrum, a relaxed dog might show only their front teeth. Trainers call this “the submissive grin” and basically, it’s a relaxed greeting. Other cues here are loose muscles, a long, slow wag and a generally happy demeanour.
When we lick our lips, it usually means we’ve just eaten something tasty. This can be the case for dogs too (gotta get those last few crumbs!), but a tiny, hard to see flick of the tongue often signals anxiety with a situation. Another signal that your dog is feeling anxious is yawning, which seems to be the doggy equivalent of taking a calming breath.
These are just a few key pointers towards building a better rapport with your four legged friend- the subject of dog communication is far too big to be covered in a single blog post. If you’re looking to discover more about reading your dog’s body language, it’s best to talk to an expert (check out our favourite - Jasmine the Pawkeeper - https://thepawkeeper.com/ or https://www.instagram.com/thepawkeeper_dogtraining/?hl=en)