Canine Communication

Posted by Dr. Roth on

Canine Communication

Pet parents often wonder what their dogs are trying to tell them. It can also be a mystery trying to figure out what dogs are saying to each other.  


Understanding Dog Communication

Dogs can express themselves vocally, with body language, and via smells. Knowing the various forms of canine communication will help pet parents bond with their dogs and prevent problems in homes with multiple dogs. 

All dogs communicate with their pet parents and various other people they encounter. It’s important for pet parents to recognize their dog's communication behaviors to help them determine if something is wrong.


Dog Communication with Humans

Dogs use their entire body to communicate but some are better at communicating than others. Here are some ways dogs use their body to communicate with humans.

Tail Wagging 

Dogs use their tail to express a wide variety of behaviors. A wagging tail doesn’t necessarily mean a happy dog. It’s important to notice the position of the tail. For example:

  • A high tail arched and wagging over the dog’s back is often a sign of aggression.
  • A tail wagging in a more neutral position may indicate a happy dog.
  • A tail tucked between the legs is a sign of a scared dog.
  • A submissive tail position can sometimes be mistaken as a scared signal.When a dog is being submissive, their tail will usually be lower than the neutral position and might have a slight wag.

The speed at which a dog wags their tail can also tell a pet parent about their dog’s mood. Excited dogs wag quickly while insecure dogs tend to have a slower wag.

It’s also important for pet parents to keep in mind any of their dog's health conditions. For example, a dog with hip dysplasia is not going to wag their tail as much because wagging can be painful on their hips.

Head, Ear, and Eye Position

Dogs use both their head and ears to communicate with people and other dogs. For example, a raised head and ears indicate the dog is alert and observing their surroundings. On the other hand, a lowered head with pinned ears can be an aggressive gesture. Aggressive gestures are usually accompanied by growling vocalizations and eye contact. 

However, a lowered head, relaxed ears, and averted eyes can showcase uncertainty or fear. Typically, any time a dog averts their eyes and doesn’t make direct eye contact, they are being submissive.

Back Position

An arched back with fur standing straight up is one of the most recognizable body language behaviors for aggression. This behavior is accompanied by a high arched tail, pointed head, pinned ears, and visible teeth. 

When a dog isn’t being aggressive, their back is usually in a neutral position. If they are being submissive, their back may be in a slouched position. 


Some dogs are very vocal while others aren't. They make a variety of vocalizations that can have various meanings. 

  • Growling: Dogs often growl when they're aggressive or defensive. However, dogs can also growl when they're playing, which is why it's important to understand body language.  
  • Barking: Dogs bark for many reasons. Oftentimes, they bark to get their pet parent's attention.  
  • Whining: Dogs will whine when they want something, are scared, or are sad. 

    Dog Communication with Dogs

    For the most part, dogs communicate with other dogs with the same kinds of body postures, tail wags, and facial positions that they do with humans. There are some small differences, however.

    Most notably, dogs have an extremely strong sense of smell and humans don’t. Therefore, even though dogs likely try to communicate with their pet parent via smell, their pet parent lacks the advanced olfactory features to detect their dog’s pheromones. Dogs use smell and scents to communicate with each other more effectively. 

    Dogs can send their scent into the air by wagging their tail. Female dogs will release pheromones male dogs can smell when she is in heat. Tail wagging is also an effective way for dogs to relay information to each other; puppies can indicate to their mother that they're hungry or to other dogs that they no longer wish to play. 

    When a dog is scared or feels threatened, they may express their anal glands and release a strong, putrid smell. Both people and other dogs can easily smell the contents of the anal glands. The purpose of releasing this smell is to try and keep the threat at bay.


    Additional Information

    How dogs communicate can have a lot to do with their breed. For answers to more dog behavior questions, pet parents should research their dog’s breed so as to better understand them. Many vocalizations and behaviors can be genetic and common for their breed. The Fuzzy veterinary team is also available 24/7 to answer dog behavior questions.


    Training & Behavior