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10 ways dogs communicate and what it means

Updated: Jan 30, 2022

Dogs engage in communication by manipulating their body, using touch, hearing and smell. They communicate with both dogs and humans but sometimes they struggle to express what they mean.

As 80% of a dogs communication is non-verbal sometimes dogs under a strong genetic influence will find it difficult to communicate effectively. (E.g. English Bulldog has a very short tail). This means sometimes what they are saying can be misunderstood by other dogs and humans. In fact studies have shown the less wolf like a dog looks the harder it finds it to communicate using its body and will have to rely on other senses like smell. Here are some examples of body language to help you with how your dog is feeling:

1. Tail wagging (not always a sign of a happy dog)

  • Happy - When a dog is happy research has shown the tail tends to wag more to the right.

  • Not happy - If the dog has a negative response, e.g. approached by an angry dog - the tail wags more to the left. (Davidson, 2004)

  • Very happy - A fast wagging horizontal or slightly up tail means your dog is excited. (And if they wiggle their bum too very happy to see you)!

  • Angry - However a fast wagging rigid tail pointed straight up is a sign of aggression!

  • Stranger danger - Tail freezes or stops. The dog doesn't want to interact with you, stop what you are doing.

  • Scared - Tail is tucked between the legs. This means the dog is frightened and should be left alone unless you are trained to deal with it.


2. Dipping the head

A dog that is fearful dips it head. It may dip it's head in response to an angry person. The lowering of the head may be to decrease its physical size in order to avoid the confrontation and to communicate its non-confrontational intention.


3. Lip licking

Lip licking is a calming signal used as a response to stress. The dog does this to try to calm itself down. The more stressed the more the dog licks to cope.


4. Glancing away

If a dog is blinking and glances away, it is experiences stress. It could be when asking a dog to perform a behaviour it does not understand and is under pressure from the owner. The dog glancing away is an avoidance behaviour.


5. Ear position

Ear position can mean a number of different things depending on what the ears are doing. Ears that are erect indicates a dog that is confident. The ears are forward because the dog is alert and feeling confidence in the immediate situation. Ears that are flattened means the dog is frightened or unsure.


6. Freezing

Freezing is used when the dog is not happy. A dog freezes as a clear warning that it does not like what is happening in the current situation.


7. Yawning

A dog yawns when it is stressed. A dog will yawn as a calming signal to relieve the stress.


8. Play bow

A play bow is used during a play session by dogs. It is the classic "bum in the air with head down pose" It is used as an invitation to play and to express the dog's playful intent to another dog.


9. Displacement

Dogs may display displacement behaviours (behaviours out of context) such as sudden sniffing of the ground, This is a distraction for when the dog is confronted with an unfamiliar or unpleasant situation, the dog may feel like it cannot cope.


10. Shaking off

Dogs do this to reset their state of mind from really intense to a calmer state. Usually after a stressful event. It is used to relieve and 'shake off' the stress that it is feeling. It is also used to remove water from the fur in fact up to 70% of water can be removed in 4 seconds by shaking!

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