From Odysseus’s faithful dog Argus in The Odyssey and the doggie-master duo of Launce and Crabbe in Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona to writer-doggie duos such as Dorothy Parker writing her “Verse for a Certain Dog” and John Steinbeck going on Travels with Charley, dogs have left their pawprints throughout the pages of literature. Between their prestigious literary pedigree and uncanny ability to communicate with each other as well as with their owners, you might think that dogs have their own language, but you’d be barking up the wrong (linguistic) tree.
Still, while Duolingo won’t be introducing courses on “How to Speak Dog” anytime soon, this obviously doesn’t mean that dogs don’t communicate. On the contrary, dogs are social animals and so need to communicate quite a bit.
So how do dogs communicate with each other and their human friends?
Dogs Communicating with Dogs
It should come as no surprise that, in addition to barks and body language, which we’ll get into below, dogs communicate via scent. While humans greet one another with a handshake, dogs greet new dogs with, erm, a butt sniff. That’s not exactly going to win any awards for elegance or etiquette, but to dogs, it makes sense. Dogs have 300 million olfactory receptors, compared to just six million in humans, and the part of the brain that processes olfactory information is 40 times bigger for dogs than humans.
As a result, dogs can learn a lot about one another instantaneously with a simple sniff. Is another dog aggressive? Where have they been, and does that include any areas a dog might’ve marked as their territory? Are their pheromones raging? As humans, we talk to get to know one another, but for dogs, a sniff is worth a thousand words.
Besides their derriere “How do you do?”, dogs communicate with a host of barks, whines, growls, and similar sounds.
Dogs Communicating with Humans
While it may not be a language per se, barking, baying, and other vocal forms of dog communication are similar to other forms of communication for humans and other animals insofar as they depend greatly on context. “Barking” can take on many different meanings depending on the sharpness, volume, length, and tenor of the bark. Barks, howls, and any number of different dog sounds can mean radically different things, depending on whether they’re relaxed, alert, aggressive, playful, or displaying any number of emotions.
- Alertness is often characterized by sharp, intense, staccato barks
- Boredom, appropriately enough, is often characterized by monotonous barks
- Fear is often demonstrated by loud and persistent barks to indicate danger
- Distress and anxiety are communicated via high-pitched whines
- Warning can be characterized by loud sustained growling
- Playfulness can be communicated via calmer growls or lighter barks
A dog’s facial expression can say a lot about their mood. Relaxed dogs’ mouths also often hang open, tongue and all. A soft gaze can communicate relaxation, as can dogs’ ears folding forward rather than back as they are when dogs are more alert.
By contrast, when dogs are anxious about something, their ears are back or to the side, ready to pick up the slightest sound. They also tend to clench their teeth so as to be ready for any threat that might come their way. Their eyes may have a faraway look as they focus on perceived danger elsewhere.
If they are interested in trying to intimidate someone or another dog, their eyes will fix on their target while they bare their teeth in warning with their ears forward. However, if their jaw is tense and their pupils dilated while they pant heavily, they may be fearful.
A dog’s tail can also show their mood. For example, when their tail is curled up, they are often at ease. Here again, context matters: are they at ease because they’re relaxed or because they’re confident of their dominance over another dog nearby? Both may be communicated with a curled tail, so it’s up to other dogs and humans to pick up on a dog’s intended context.
By contrast, a stiff tail often indicates alertness. Your dog may be tracking something or simply in a heightened state of alert.
There’s a reason “with tail between their legs” has entered our lexicon as a metaphor for leaving a situation in an apologetic or greatly diminished state. When dogs put their tail between their legs or otherwise hold it low, they are typically displaying submission. Again, it’s up to you to determine what the cause and context of that submission may be.
Sometimes dogs bow a bit, not in a formal manner, but rather to indicate that they are ready to play. They may also show affection by rearing up on their hind legs or engaging in light biting. The latter may sound alarming to us, but they are normal moves for dogs who are familiar with one another; as long as they don’t bite too hard, it should just be a toothy way of showing affection or being playful. Dogs can also demonstrate that sense of play with a quick paw slap.
A smile is typically a good thing, as it is with humans, but it’s important to know the difference between a dog smiling because of contentment and them baring their teeth as a warning. Again, context such as growling and other signs of agitation is important to pick up on to let you know which is the case.
One final example of context-dependent dog communication is a dog yawn. This can mean that they’re stressed out, relaxed, or ready for fun, depending on what the rest of their body language and barks say. Sometimes dogs will yawn in the presence of other dogs to try and calm them down.
Dogs may not be writing any literary masterpieces anytime soon, but this doesn’t mean that they don’t have a wealth of ways to make themselves understood.