Updated: Feb 20, 2021
Tips to understand what your dog is communicating
Donna Gleason, CDBC, CPDT, MA, CCBS Research Associate
Allie Tellier, CCBS Executive Director
Vivian Zottola, MSc, CBCC, CCBS Research Associate
Love is an important part of the human-dog bond. As humans, we believe dogs reciprocate our feelings, but is it true? Many animals use body language and vocalization to express themselves. However when it comes to showing affection, a hug and a kiss does not mean the same to dogs.
Dr. Gregory Berns and other scientists researching human and animal behavior found that dogs are capable of feeling similar emotions including love and attachment for their people (Functional MRI in Awake Unrestrained Dogs). “Merely gazing into our furry friends eyes can release a cascade of bonding hormones. And while this science may be true, where we go wrong is assuming dogs are not individuals with their own particular likes and dislikes, even experiencing bad days” says Vivian Zottola, MSc, CBCC, and Research Associate for the Center for Canine Behavior Studies.
A dog’s communicative world is much different than a person, who uses words to express their likes, dislikes, wants and feelings. Interpreting canine communication takes practice, time, and attention to big and small details. Did you know, most dogs do not like it when another (dog or person) leans over them, stares at them, or holds/ hugs them for long? However, most dogs learn to tolerate these behaviors from their trusted people and owners. If a dog advances toward you in a natural and wiggly way, leaning, nuzzling, or nudging your hand, they are asking for affection. Some dogs communicate very subtly as well. One might look away, walk or even run away, telling us they need space. The idea of consenting is very important and helpful when engaging with a dog.
When attempting to decipher what your dog is trying to communicate - think of the phrase coined by Family Paws, “Ears, eyes, tail, and muzzle gather all the clues and solve the puzzle.” Observe the “whole dog” from muzzle to tail, instead of focusing on one area. Are they licking their lips? Does your dog have a hard or soft stare? Are they yawning? What is the position of the tail? What environmental factors might be affecting the behavior of your dog? We’ll help you put these pieces together to better understand your dog:
Kisses: Dogs do not exchange kisses with people the same way people do with each other. As Vivian Zottola explains, “According to Ethologists, the study of animal behavior, the canine muzzle nudge and licking the face was a behavior to elicit or prompt mom to regurgitate food. Dogs may be observed to lick our face however, most of the time it is because we have crumbs on our cheek or stinky breath.”
Dogs may lick to move someone out of the way, too. This is called “Kiss to Dismiss”! If you have a multi-dog house, you may have seen one dog approach another one laying on the couch and smothers them with kisses until the laying dog gets up…the licker wins the spot on the couch! We see dogs do this with young infants and toddlers. People misconstrue the “kisses” as affection, but more than likely the dog trying to move the child away, (or clean off the crumbs!). In these circumstances, always err on the side of caution, never leave your dog and children alone. For more on safety between dogs and kids, visit Family Paws.
Eye contact: Subtle changes in the way canines offer eye contact may have different meanings. Therefore, make sure you take the whole body into consideration as well as the context of the environment when interpreting what your dog’s eye contact may indicate.
When it’s love: Dogs look to their people for acknowledgement, reassurance, play and direction. Wide eyes with open mouth/muzzle, and wagging tail may be a query, “let’s play” or “what’s next?!” Sometimes described as “soft or bedroom eyes”, this is when the eyes squint to a half almond shape. The tip of their tongue might flicker out as well and this usually expresses comfort. It’s the look you get when you scratch that spot they can’t reach!
When it’s not: A hard stare is a dog forewarning you to stop. Generally it is a fixed, hard stare. They look at you straight on and do not break their gaze. Some people observe the “whale eye” which is when a dog watches you out of the corner of their eyes. Their eyes follow you but the head and body does not move. You see the whites of their eyes. In this case, the dog is communicating to you to move away and give them distance. Looking away, standing to the side and slowly backing off typically reduces this tension.
Smiling: A dogs’ facial expression, in terms of how they present their muzzle, will change when reacting to loved ones, strangers, and pleasant or unpleasant objects. Generally speaking we see a “smile” as an open mouth on a relaxed dog.
When it’s love: Does your dog smile when you come home from work? A dog's smile can signal love and affection to an owner just as human smiles do. Look for a loose, relaxed facial expression. You could see their mouth open, the corners of their mouth turn upward, and tongue out.
When it’s not: The dog’s mouth will be tight, jaws clenched, and any number of teeth can be shown. A dog might bare his teeth if you’ve come too close to something it values, like its food, bed, or toy. If you back away, the dog will likely stop, because you’ve understood the message. Conversely, if you continue moving forward, you’re not listening to the dog and can expect the dog's communicative reaction to intensify.
Tails: A dog's tail communicates many different emotional states. Tails can construe happiness, confidence, tension and fear. Similar to eye contact, make sure you take the whole body into consideration as well as the context of the environment when interpreting what your dog’s tail might be trying to communicate.
When it’s love: Generally, the looser and more relaxed your dog's tail is, the more relaxed they are. When your dog is happy, their tail sweeps back and forth in big strides mid level. The tail may even move in a circular motion round and round. For some dogs, like those without a tail, the wag isn’t confined to the tail but rather their whole body. You’ll observe the whole dog wiggle, a full body ripple!
When it’s not: A dog’s tail is upright and high and their body posture is still, accompanied by a closed mouth. A high tail is certainly arousal, and can take on different meanings. It might mean the dog is nervous, confident, or angry. Some dogs express a quick high tail rattlesnake wag or the tip of the tail quickly flicking back and forth as tension. A low tail or a tail tucked between their legs is indicative of fear. A flat on the tummy is characterized as extreme fear.
Snuggling: It’s natural for a dog to curl up with it’s family - be it human, canine, feline, or another species it shares the home with!
When it’s love: “Dogs show signs of affection in general by coming toward us, sitting and lying down near us. Vivian Zottola says. They may nudge our hand or arm with their muzzle or paw at us because they have learned the consequence of doing so works, we pet them. We cannot argue it is mutually gratifying and often calming.”
When it’s not: We have all heard the expression - “let sleeping dogs lie”. Be careful approaching a dog who is already settled down. A relaxed or sleeping dog can easily be startled when they don’t expect the attention.
Vocalization: Dogs use vocalization to express a need and or alert others (friend or foe). Some vocalize more than others because they have learned it works. .
When it’s love: Some dogs moan to vocalize something you do is pleasing to them. Some may give you a rousing “ARROOO!” when you arrive home because they are over the top excited. Some breeds are known to be more vocal (we’re looking at you, huskies and beagles!). Some dogs don’t vocalize when excited at all, however they show their love in other ways!
When it’s not: Excessive barking might mean there is underlying fear, anxiety or stress. Growling is a vocalization method that can be used during play and also serves as an indicator to move away from something they perceive as threatening, or do not like. The growl is a low-pitched noise that sounds like a low hum or motor vehicle. We appreciate it when our dogs growl because it is their way of indicating that they don’t feel comfortable about something. For now, if your dog growls at something, a person, another dog or object, try not to take it personally - Respect their request and give them distance.
Bottomline: “Our dogs are constantly communicating their likes and dislikes to us. Remember to look at the whole body as well and context cues from the environment when trying to interpret the message. Also, take into consideration that some dogs, whether due to breed, physical ability, or experiences, may display signs differently, or not at all” reminds Donna Gleason, CDBC, CPDT, MA, CCBS Research Associate. For instance, Pugs show unintended “whale eye” due to their bulging eyes. Bulldogs and other brachycephalic dogs snort, which may be confused as a growl. Dogs who have docked tails or no tail may be a bit more difficult to read as a large part of the communication chain is unavailable.
There is no doubt you have a strong bond with your dog. Taking the time to understand what your dog is communicating will help you see how much your dog loves you.
Donna Gleason, CDBC, CPDT, MA, is a Research Associate for the Center for Canine Behavior Studies. Donna is a certified Service Dog Coach, and certified through Family Paws in their Dogs/Stork and Toddler program. She is the owner and operator of TLC Dog Trainer, LLC
Vivian Zottola, MSc, CBCC, is a Research Associate for the Center for Canine Behavior Studies. Vivian is an Applied Anthrozoologist, Human-Canine Relationship Specialist, and a Fear Free Certified Animal Trainer. She is the owner and operator of BostonK9Concierge LLC