How and Why Dogs Communicate

My four year old dog, Bones, is an expert at communicating with me.

He’s a smart, bold dog so it shouldn’t surprise me that he’s studied me well and figured out how to get my attention and convey his wants or needs. He doesn’t always get what he wants but I always acknowledge his clear communications.

The Sounds Dogs Use

Verbal communications are a natural means of expression for dogs in many different situations. When a puppy cries, the mother dog will respond quickly to determine the problem. When one puppy bites a sibling too hard, the one who was bitten will yelp and the biting puppy will back off; understanding he was too rough. Dogs playing with each other will often bark loudly and joyously. A dog herding rowdy livestock will often bark to move the stock. A livestock guardian dog who spies a coyote will bark in a threatening manner. The variety of sounds is not as wide as our spoken language, but it’s certainly varied enough to do what is needed.

Dogs Repeat Rewarding Actions

When dogs first try to communicate with us verbally, they tend to use the sounds that worked when communicating with each other. Since dogs tend to repeat actions that are rewarding for them, when a means of communication works, they’ll remember it. For example, if your dogs barks when playing with other dogs and one day plops a ball in your lap and barks at you, if you throw the ball your dog will remember that and will do it again.

However, if that bark wasn’t successful, he may try something else. Perhaps a whine, a grumble, or a groan. Dogs have been known to be quite inventive. If you don’t want to be barked at, don’t respond to a bark. As my puppy, Hero, discovered, I don’t want to be barked at so when he barked at me for his breakfast one morning I stopped fixing it and walked away. When he was quiet I went back to the kitchen. We repeated this a few times and then he decided perhaps sitting quietly would work better. The next morning, he sat quietly right away and got his breakfast right away, too.



Body Language Speaks Loudly

Body language is a huge part of canine communication. Body language, which includes body postures, movements, and facial expressions, can convey a range of emotions or their wants.

A dog who wants to play with another dog will lower his front end while keeping his his hips high. Above his hips, his tail will be wagging wildly. This play bow is probably one of the most recognizable canine body postures and when a dog tries it with a human, the person usually responds by throwing the ball or play tug with the dog.

Most canine body language communications combine several things; for example when my dog wants to play he will stare at me (eye contact), he’ll be up on his toes, his mouth will be relaxed and open with tongue hanging loose, his ears will be forward, and his tail will be up and wagging. His posture and expression all convey joy. On the other hand, when my puppy is ready to go to bed in the evening, he’ll come to me and rest his chin on my knee. His eyes will be half closed, his body relaxed but sagging, his tail hanging down and still. His expression is tired.

Motion Garners Attention

Motion catches our attention and many dogs learn quickly to use this to their advantage. As soon as Hero learned that I didn’t want him to bark at me, he tried different ways to get my attention and figured out that if he hopped a little and moved his head in a funny, zig zag manner, I would pay attention to him. As a matter of fact, when he does that I laugh but he doesn’t care about the laughter, he’s happy he’s gained my attention.

Many dogs have learned to communicate with people so well they have changed some of their natural means of communication and adapted it for people. When trying to get our attention, dogs will move into our field of vision. Then, they’ll move away to get us to follow them. Bones knows that moving towards me will catch my eyes so if he wants to go outside he’ll move close enough to get my attention and then he’ll move towards the door to go outside. I’ll follow him and let him out.

Dogs also learn that they can show people what they want or need by moving towards an object and then pointing their nose at it. How many dogs get their owner’s attention, move to the kitchen, and then point at the treat box? Who needs to speak English when you can communicate that well?

It Works (Most of the Time)

No matter how well we know our dogs, sometimes there are misunderstandings. More than once I’ve let a dog outside only to have the dog stand outside, looking back at me in disappointment. When I see his disappointment and ask him, “What?”; that becomes his cue to repeat his communication. It means, “Tell me again,” so that I can understand him. With time and reinforcement, you should be able to understand your dog’s communications just as well as if he could speak to you.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika, CDT, CABC

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer and Certified Animal Behavior Consultant as well as the founder and co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in northern San Diego county. Liz is also the founder of Love on a Leash therapy dogs; her dog, Bones, goes on visits on a regular basis. A prolific writer, Liz is also the author of more than 80 books. Many of her works have been nominated or won awards from a variety of organizations, including Dog Writers Association of America, San Diego Book Awards, the ASPCA, and others. Liz shares her home with three English Shepherds: Bones, Hero, and Seven, as well as one confident and bossy orange tabby cat, Kirk. To relax from work, or to take work on the road, Liz and her crew travel the West and PNW in their RV. If you see an RV on the road named "Travelin' Dogs", honk and say hi!

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