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The Language of Dog

Understanding How Dogs Communicate
by Andi Godfrey (2010)

“He can almost speak” says the proud owner of his dog with a mocking pride.  But the truth is he can. Not in the way that humans speak but in a language of his own.  The English tend to be rather apathetic about learning new languages and this lackadaisical attitude often extends to our dogs.  Sympathetically trained dogs have a much better command of the human language than we have of their lingo, and yet, by having a better understanding of canine communication, we could improve our training methods and the way in which we deal with the behaviours we think to be anti-social.

The sense of smell
Humans and dogs both communicate with sound, body language and scent but the human has become so adept at sound that body language and scent tend to go unnoticed.  The dog relies mainly on scent, with the voice being its weakest form of communication.  Dogs produce chemicals called pheromones which are present in urine, faeces, saliva and other body secretions.   Humans produce pheromones too and despite our attempts to disguise them with something more appealing, our natural body odour still plays an important part in communication.  For instance, pheromones are responsible for the synchronisation of the menstrual cycle where many women work or live together in close proximity. 

Dogs use their pheromones like a personal C.V.  They contain information on sexual and social status, state of health, age, degrees of confidence and genetic relatedness.  They can initiate an immediate response to other dogs or one that is more long term.  There are a number of scent glands involved, the most important of these being the anal glands (bulblike reservoirs at each side of the anus.)  When dogs greet by sniffing the other’s nether regions, they gain a whole range of information about their new acquaintance, which explains why some dogs have an embarrassing habit of sniffing your visitor’s crutch or carrying your dirty underwear in their mouths! 

A few years ago there was a famous outtake from a Sunday worship programme of a collie dragging his bottom along the ground while his shepherd master continued singing a hymn.  The most common reason for a dog performing this behaviour is to empty the anal glands.  These glands can be prone to getting blocked and infected causing a great deal of discomfort.  One explanation for the regularity of this occurrence is that the domestic dog is not frightened frequently enough to trigger secretion from these glands as it would be living in the wild.

Urine, another, pheromone source, is the telegraph for sexual information.  It is no accident that dogs cock their legs to aim their urine up a tree or a lamppost, it is to supply information at nose level for other interested parties.  Anyone who has owned a dog will know the number of times a dog can lift his leg on a walk – even to the point where it seems there is no more urine left to be excreted.   Either he will be covering up another male’s scent, re-establishing his own or marking over a female’s scent as if to say, “This one is mine!” 

Bitches scent mark too, although not to quite the same extent except before and during oestrus (when she is ‘on heat’).  Frequent urinating is one of the most obvious signs that a bitch is coming into ‘season’.  It can start up to ten days prior to oestrus and can be defined as placing an ad in the ‘lonely hearts’ column saying, ‘gorgeous female, ready and willing’.  Only she is not.  She won’t be ‘ready and willing’ for several days to come, usually about 10 days after showing blood, but the deception is deliberate as it gives her a chance to assess her gentlemen callers and to pick the healthiest, strongest and most dominant amongst them.  Sadly most domestic dogs have arranged marriages!

You will notice that once a puppy has marked a spot with urine, he will continue to use the same area as a latrine, which is unfortunate if it happens to be your best carpet!  If you can manage to get him to wee on a paper or a puppy pad, then place it outside secured with stones and he will soon get the message.

At the onset of puberty, pheromones stimulate sex hormones and increase sex drive and, in some cases, can influence aggression, especially in the male.  This is the reason why some behaviourists and vets may recommend castration for a particularly aggressive young male.  Where there are two males in a household that frequently fight, it is sometimes an option to have the least dominant of the two castrated. In doing so, the rank status of the two dogs will be cemented and neither will be any doubt as to who is top dog. 

Environmental smells play an important part in communication.  Males and females can be observed scratching the earth after defecation and urination.  This action enables them to spread their scent and breaks the surrounding vegetation which is also a signal to other dogs.  Dogs have the unpleasant habit of rolling in the foulest smelling things such as cow pats, fox droppings and rotting carcases.  Distressing though this maybe for the owner, the most likely theory is that the dog is reverting to its hunting origins and is camouflaging his own smell in order to confuse his prey.

A dog does not communicate through scent alone. Body language and to a lesser extent voice will help to build the image as a whole.  A timid or frightened dog will try to cover up his ‘signal box’ by tucking his tail underneath his legs.  Similarly a confident dog will hold his tail up high and spread his scent by wagging it.  This can mean that he is willing to be friends or it can mean, “I’m the top dog and I’m about to prove it.”  Tail wagging can be misinterpreted by humans unless other pointers are taken into consideration. 

Body Language
Body language is universal to all species but humans can be forgiven for misreading tail-wagging as we fall short on this apparatus!  As mentioned earlier, tail wagging is considered to be a symbol of friendliness and non-aggression, but in some circumstances it can be a sign of conflict, apprehension and uncertainty.  Envisage the way in which a dog greets a stranger with its tail wagging.  Many people would think that the dog is just being friendly but more likely he is thinking, “I want to advance but really should I make a hasty retreat?”  There are various different types of tail wagging too.  The confident dog wags with an erect tail and the more submissive character holds his tail low and wags with wide strokes.  The aggressive wag is much shorter and stiffer.

A puppy does not learn to wag its tail until it is between 20 to 50 days old (depending on the individual and the breed).  In the early days, puppies will suckle their mothers with no tail movement but as they get older their tails will begin to wag at feeding times.  This body language could be interpreted to mean that the pups are pleased to feed, but equally, they have started to become aware of rank and competition within the pack. 

When a dog wishes to assert his dominance he will give an overall image of increased size.  He stands erect with ears pricked and tail held high.  A threatening dog will raise his hackles and bear his teeth with lips drawn forward. The stare is the ultimate challenge.  The dog that maintains eye contact the longest with another will exert a rank of authority, if neither backs down, a fight will ensue to establish who is top dog.  Unfortunately it is a common mistake of people who are nervous or frightened of dogs to stare into a dog’s eyes through apprehension.  This behaviour can be misinterpreted by the dog as a challenge and may lead to an attack if left unsupervised.
A dog wishing to show he is submissive and not wanting to accept a challenge will revert to puppy behaviour.  He lowers his head and crouches to become smaller and if he fails to obtain the desired effect, he will roll over onto his back holding his paws limply in the air.  Sometimes these actions are accompanied with a squirt of urine.  Some experts say that the elimination of urine is  a direct throw back to when his mother stimulated the passing of urine by licking his stomach, although equally it could be part of the ‘flight or fight’ response to fear.  Sometimes the submissive dog will lick the face of a dominant party.  This gesture is believed to ape a puppy’s attempt to elicit the regurgitation of food from an adult dog.


A happy and well-adjusted dog’s instinct to play will continue well into old age.  A typical invitation to join in the game is the ‘play-bow’.  The dog assumes a sphinx-like position in the front but the bottom remains in the air.  The dog will stare, but in this time there is no aggression as his lips are drawn right back towards his ears like a human smile.  The ‘play-bow’ is similar to a stretching position and from that it can be deduced that the dog is relaxed and any chasing or biting that follows is to be taken purely as fun; however biting should be discouraged from a puppy.  Playing with litter mates and latterly their new owners is an essential part of a pup’s education.  It teaches communication, inventiveness and co-ordination. 

Sound is the weakest area of a dog’s communication skills.  The bark is generally perceived to be an alarm call and, because it is often accompanied with aggression, a barking dog tends to be considered a threat however this may not always be the case.  Barking informs other members of the pack (including humans) to be alert.  A fearless aggressive dog will attack without a sound; for example, a trained police dog bounds silently after a criminal and tightly clamps his jaws onto his victim’s arm.

Growling when the body language is consistent with fear is a warning signal.  In this case, it is more likely that the growling dog will follow with a defensive bite, whereas a barking dog will be calling in reinforcements before making a move.  Both growling and barking can be used to instigate play and this is when the importance of understanding body language comes into play. 

Howling tends to be more prevalent in wolves.  It is used as a means of communicating between the pack and has been analysed as having many different meanings that include co-ordinating the spacing between members of the pack on their territory, assembling the pack, passing on an alarm, expressing loneliness or simply celebrating.  Some domestic breeds of dog are more prone to howling than others such as hounds, huskies and Dobermans.   Barking appears to have taken the place of howling in most canine pets.  The alarm bark was likely to be the first trait for which our ancestors selected the dog and, as with the other traits we have favoured, it was selectively bred into domestic dogs.

Other sounds include the cry, whine or whimper (all associated with the infantile stage) the yelp and the moan of pleasure.   The common theory is that human intervention has encouraged the dog’s vocalisation, in particular the infantile sounds, by babying our dogs and not allowing them to mature as they would in the wild.  Pups learn quickly that they can elicit attention or food by whining! 
Vocal communication is considered to have developed both genetically and as a learned behaviour.  The bark was initially recognised as an alarm call but now it has as many meanings as the howl within a wolf pack.  Most dog owners have become quite adept at understanding this form of communication.  A single yap can mean, “I want to be let out,” and more yaps follow as the urgency increases.  Another bark might be used to invite play or excessive barking could mean excitement, exuberance or joy at the anticipation of a walk.

This article merely touches on the subject of communication between dogs and humans but hopefully it will have explained some of the ways in which dogs can speak.  Shouting at a dog to make him understand has about as much effect as shouting at a foreigner that does not speak English, but a gentle word, a bit of body language, and a whiff of pheromone says it all!
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