There’s not a pet owner among us who hasn’t wished their dog or cat could talk. We can communicate easily using complex verbal language, but dogs are limited to their body language to express their wants and needs.
Once you know what your dog is “saying” through non-verbal communication, you can better understand its behavior and mood.
The 5 Ways Dogs Communicate (52 Signs to Watch For)
1. Excitement vs Arousal
Excitement communication is often a response to something a dog likes, such as a person or toy. Dogs may be more or less excitable based on age, mental and physical stimulation, and their personality, but generally, they display behaviors like a wagging tail and relaxed but alert eyes.
Dogs may also display arousal in response to something they fear, dislike, or find uncomfortable, such as another dog or person they don’t trust. Arousal is how responsive your dog is to the environment around them, how easily triggered by a stimulus they are. When this happens, the dog may display excitement signals like a tail wag paired with trembling or aggressive behaviors like barking or lunging.
Anxiety is common in many dogs, whether it’s all the time or only in certain situations. The ways dogs communicate anxiety are similar to communicating fear, such as panting, pacing, lip-licking, yawning, a slow tail wag, and avoiding eye contact. Some dogs may shed excessively or drool when anxious.
Sometimes, anxious communication mimics signs of arousal, such as barking or lunging. Anxiety has its basis in fear, when the outcome of a situation is uncertain. Arousal is based in excitement causing a strong response which can be good or bad.
Fearful communication typically involves the whole body with a range of signals that intensify as the fear intensifies. Dogs often display submission signals that are subtle, such as lip-licking, yawning, and avoiding eye contact. They may also cower, tuck their tails, pull their ears back, tremble, or lean back to avoid the fearful stimulus. The ladder of aggression gives a useful visual as to how fearful behaviors can escalate to a bite.
Conversely, some dogs “shut down” when fearful, like they’re frozen in place. These dogs may refuse treats or food, avoid people approaching or touching them, or freeze when they’re cornered. If these signs are ignored and the fear is allowed to intensify, the dog may switch to defensive aggression to protect itself.
Aggression is a normal behavior in dogs and other animals in response to a perceived threat, be it a person, dog, or situation. Dogs use aggressive communication to warn others that they’ll defend themselves, their possessions (including their people), and their territory.
Typically, aggressive dogs will show more subtle warning signals, escalating into a bite. This may begin with a stiff posture, growling, snarling, or showing teeth. If the threat still advances, such as you moving toward your dog with a toy in its mouth, the behavior will become more and more threatening until you back off.
Dogs that escalate from subtle to severe aggression signals quickly—or seem to jump right to snapping and biting—do so because their aggressive language has been ignored, misread, or punished. This is why you should never punish a growl. You’re not removing the aggression, just quieting the alarm system.
5. Happiness or Contentment
A relaxed dog is a content dog. They’re comfortable, secure, and feel happy. Dogs that are relaxed and happy will have a relaxed mouth that’s slightly open with a neutral head and ears, soft eyes, and a smooth, easy tail wag that moves back and forth or in a circular motion. Sometimes, happy dogs appear to have a “smile” on their face.
Tips for Interpreting Dog Body Language
A happy, playful dog is easy enough to spot, but some behaviors are a bit harder to read. For example, a dog wagging its tail isn’t always a sign that they want to play or that they’re happy. Dogs may wag their tail before subtle aggression signals escalate to a fight, but the owners believed that their dog was ready for playtime. In this example, the difference could be seen in the rest of the body language, such as a stiff posture or unwavering stare (aggression) versus a crouching position and a soft mouth and eyes (playful).
The key is observing the whole dog’s body to catch all the subtle signs and considering the context to read the situation properly. The dog may display a mix of different signals, such as a combination of arousal and anxiety.
The situation can also change quickly, just like our own emotional state. The dog may be excited to meet another dog and display playful signals, only to decide that the dog is now a threat and move into aggression or fear. It’s important to pay attention to the dog and the subtle indicators of how it’s feeling to avoid a negative situation before it starts.
Similarly, it’s important not to humanize your dog. Human body language and dog body language are different. For example, we may see a wide smiling expression on our dog’s face and assume it’s happy when that particular smile could be baring its teeth to warn someone away or a submissive signal to de-escalate an uncomfortable situation.
When you project your own emotions or interpretation onto your dog’s nonverbal communication, you’re missing an opportunity to listen, form a deep connection, and understand what your dog needs from you.
Dog communication is nonverbal and vastly different from our own. Taking the time to observe your dog’s movements and actions can help you better understand what it’s trying to communicate and react appropriately to stress, fear, discomfort, or aggression before it becomes an issue.