Learning how to understand your dog, and what he's trying to tell you, is a learning curve for new owners.
Although love doesn't always need words, you and Fido don't speak the same language, and this can make understanding your dog a little tricky at times.
Most times mis-communications are simply confusing, frustrating or even funny. But sometimes they can be at the root of serious behavior or training problems which make life difficult for everyone, and could even put both of you at risk.
Canine communication and behavior is a huge topic and there's a whole lot we still don't know about how and why dogs do certain things, or behave in certain ways.
On this page I'm going to take a closer look at what we do know and hope that it will help strengthen the bond between you and your dog, and limit feelings of frustration or confusion
Our dogs can't tell us what they think, feel or need in a verbal way. So it's important to learn how to understand your dog when he uses non-verbal communication (ie body language).
Good communication is a key part of a healthy relationship, whether it's with our spouse, kids, or pets!
Sometimes our dogs can be trying to say one thing, and we hear/see something different because we're misinterpreting them. As Fido will use his body to let you know what he wants, or how he's feeling, it's vital to learn to 'read' his cues.
The muzzle, eyes, ears and tail are the main indicators of a dog's emotional state and he often also uses body positions and actions to help you figure out what he's trying to say or what mood he's in.
These are generalizations and not ALL dogs will exhibit the same body language, clues or postures when they're happy, scared, or angry.
But most dogs will show at least a couple of them.
Of course there are also a whole range of emotions that fall in between the four given above.
A dog can be cautious, confident, watchful, curious, wary.... and he'll show all of these emotions through body language combining some of the postures and facial expressions I've described.
Here are photos of just a few of the many possible combinations of dog body language clues, and what they mean......
If you trust your instincts you'll generally be pretty accurate in your assessment of a dogs emotions.
This is because just as dogs can feel our emotions, we can feel theirs if we give ourselves a chance.
Dogs whose ears or tails have been cropped or surgically altered can be more difficult to read for obvious reasons, and dogs with ears that are always pricked, or are very droopy won't be able to send off the same signals.
Lots of very long hair can disguise posture, eyes and/or ears, and make it difficult to see if the hackles are raised.
Some breeds (like the Rhodesian Ridgeback) have a strip of hair running down their spine that is going against the natural lie of the hair and always appears to be raised.
We all know that a dog is happy when he wags his tail right?
Well that's not always true.
Yes, tail-wagging is often a positive sign, but from the charts above you can also see that different ways, or speed, of wagging can mean different things.
Researchers have now discovered that the direction in which a dog 'wags' also says something about how he's feeling!
When he 'wags', a dog waves his tail back and forth, and often he 'wags' his entire rear end.
A study undertaken at the Center for Mind/Brain Sciences, at the University of Trento in Italy, found that when a dog wags favoring his left side brain activity shows that he's often feeling anxious, worried or upset.
But when he wags favoring his right, studies of his brain show that he's usually feeling calm, relaxed and happy.
This is a instinctively understood by other dogs, who 'read' the emotions in the tail wag with ease. Interesting stuff huh?
Although dogs don't speak our language, they communicate with each other in a lot of different ways.
If you want to know how to understand your dog, it helps to learn what each behavior/sound means to a dog.
If you take the time to learn what certain sounds, actions and postures mean you'll soon be 'speaking dog' and that's a big step towards avoiding many of the most common, and sometimes biggest, problems and frustrations of dog ownership.
Here are some clues to what your dog might be trying to tell you......
Although speaking dog doesn't include real words, the sounds your dog makes all have meaning, and can be one of the easiest actions to understand.
We all know dogs bark, but they also howl, growl, snarl, whine, yelp, whimper and 'grumble'. If you want to understand what your dog is trying to tell you, then you need to know what each type of vocalization usually means...
This can mean your dog is happy or excited, be an attempt to get your attention, give you a warning that a stranger is at the front door, or send a message to another dog in the neighbors yard.
Barking that is designed to get your attention, or as part of a game is usually higher pitched than what you'll hear when you're dog is sounding the 'intruder alert'.
Dogs who are left alone for long periods or get bored can take up barking, just for fun or to keep themselves busy. This is never fun for anyone else.
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This can be your dog's way of warning you that he's feeling irritated or angry, and if you ignore him the next step could be a nip/bite. He can also growl in play or for fun.
If he's playing, the growling will most likely be higher-pitched and maybe more 'throaty' than a warning growl which is usually very low, deep and comes from the chest.
A dog can growl without changing his facial expression much at all.
Snarling is different from growling and is usually a clear indication that a dog is feeling angry and/or aggressive.
The sound is accompanied by pulled back lips which show both teeth and gums, and deep wrinkles extending the length of the muzzle.
Although dogs of all ages will whine from time to time, it's more common and seen most often in puppies. Pups and dogs whine for pretty much the same reasons human children and adults do.
They want something they can't have, and are upset about it! If your pup whines for a toy, treat or attention and you give it to him you're simply proving to him that this strategy works, so don't do it.
The exception to this is when your pup/dog is whining at the door because he needs to go outside to pee or poop!
This isn't a vocalization that dogs use a whole lot, although some breeds tend to be bigger 'howlers' than others. Hounds of all types are more prone to making this noise than many other breeds. They also 'bay' which is a sound somewhere between howling and barking.
In the wild howling is used as a long-distance communication system and for identifying different packs and groups.
If your pet dog starts to howl he might be bored or lonely, or he may have heard another dog howling. It's a kind of group activity and seems to be contagious (in the same kind of way that yawning is contagious although obviously much noisier).
A siren, car alarm or certain musical instruments can also trigger howling.
The best way to describe what this sounds like is 'grumbling'. It's usually a low, rumbling noise and your dog might use it to show that he's irritated, or as 'back-talk' when you tell him off.
In these situations it's not exactly growling, and is milder and less threatening. BUT you should never allow your dog's complaints to control your behavior, or allow him to 'sass' you - a quiet, but firm, verbal correction will show him that you don't approve.
Some breeds tend to 'grumble' or 'groan' when they're feeling content, especially if they're being petted or loved on. Rottweilers are very big on doing this but many other breeds also do it, and individual personality also plays a big role.
This can sound menacing, especially in a big dog, but it's more akin to a cat purring than a growl. However, do be sure that it IS grumbling that a dog is doing and not growling before you carry on with whatever is triggering the noise.
Yelping is a noise most dogs only make when they're in pain, frightened or upset.
Puppies learn bite inhibition (how hard they can bite without fear of retaliation or causing real damage) by nipping and biting each other in play - only stopping when the other puppy yelps.
A yelp of pain is like us saying 'Ouch!'
Some breeds can yelp at the slightest hurt, others have a high tolerance for pain and rarely complain.
Some breeds have a very high-pitched bark that can sound almost like yelping, especially very tiny dogs and some herding dogs.
Whimpering is also a way for a dog to let you know he's in pain or is scared. A yelp is often the first sound and is sudden and sharp, it may be followed by whimpering which is similar to a human crying.
So far we've taken a look at your dog's efforts to communicate with you, and hopefully you now have a better understanding of what he's saying (verbally or otherwise).
But this isn't enough. In order to fully understand your dog it's also very important to understand why he feels or acts a certain way
Dogs rely on body language and behavior more than on vocalizations when they're interacting with other dogs, humans are more into words than actions. This is where the problems can begin!
Wolves (and wild dogs) are pack animals, and in order for the pack to thrive there have to be:
Domesticated dogs still have those instincts hard-wired into their brains and if you want your 'pack' (ie your family) to function properly you need to help your dog figure out where he fits in, who is in charge, and what the rules are.
Of course our dogs are our 'babies' but they're still 100% canine, and it's a huge mistake to expect them to share our human emotions, desires and understanding.
If you treat your pup like a human then you're going to be surprised, irritated, frustrated or confused when he acts like a dog instead of a human.. and that's not his fault... so from day one remember your pup is a canine and work with his instincts and needs.
It will make life so much easier for everyone. So let's take it a step further and see what actions we need to take to make sure that we are speaking the same language as our pup....
Here are the basics of what your dog needs from you:
This list is my own personal thoughts and after decades of experience raising and living with dogs I think it's pretty accurate.
The places where many new owners go wrong, and where miscommunication begins, is with leadership and boundaries. Or lack thereof.
Your puppy's first instinct is to stay with his pack, preferably as close to his momma as possible. This is why when you bring him home he pretty much super-glue's himself to your side... and why he gets so upset when you're out of sight.
As soon as he starts to feel at home and secure he will start looking for the pack leader, and it's important that he realizes this is YOU. Dogs who don't have a clear pack leader they can respect tend to take on the role themselves, and that's not going to end well.
To be seen as the leader you don't need to be harsh, dictatorial or bossy. All you need to do is be calm and firm, and to make sure you set up the rules you want to be followed from day one, and gently but lovingly insist that your pup follows them.
Dogs don't express love in the same way we do, they don't have the same understanding of right and wrong, or feel guilt or try to 'get even' with another dog (or even a person).
When we overlay human emotions onto our pet's abilities misunderstandings are bound to happen.....
Your own dog should accept these without complaint, even if he doesn't reciprocate, but try them on a strange dog at your own risk!
Other behaviors that often need a bit of extra translation include....