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Training & Behavior

Your Dog is Trying to Tell You Something - Becoming More Fluent in Canine Body Language

September 11, 2023 - 4 minute read by Lori Carscadden

Danesandthings Dr. Harvey039s1

Spoiler Alert: Your dog does not actually 'speak' Human Language.

Although we have full-on conversations with our pups, these wonderful beings don't start out understanding a lick of it... they aren't really listening to our words. They are navigating and interpreting as best they can via what we show them through our energy and tone, plus our physical posturing and facial expressions. In other words, through our BODY LANGUAGE.

As we continually speak at our doggos as if they are people, the dogs are simultaneously attempting to communicate back at us as if we were dogs... hence communication breakdown! This can be a slippery slope where frustrating misunderstandings become mislabeling of a pup as problematic (or stubborn, spoiled, etc) when in reality you are just speaking two different languages at the same time.

This doesn't mean one is right and one is wrong, or one is more important than the other. Both living beings have the right to express themselves. The language towards each other is just different – due to the fact we are different species. (see Spoiler Alert above)

Despite our best efforts, many times our Human/Canine communication is a bit one-sided - focused more on the human perspective.

It turns out, dogs can communicate back with us through CANINE body language as well. We just need to learn to be more fluent in it!

A person holding a box of food and a dog

You may be thinking your dog speaks to you most by barking to get your attention- but vocalizing is actually a minor portion of how dogs communicate. (Verbal communication to get points across is more of a human thing.) Dogs primarily communicate with their whole bodies- only after hitting threshold and becoming frustrated may it land in a bark, growl, etc. To many humans, they feel these behaviors come 'out of nowhere', but in reality there were so many clues that were just missed. Sometimes they only happen for a quick second, but the clues are there...

Here are some subtle signs of an uncomfortable pup:

  • Head: lowered head
  • Eyes: a lot of white is showing (known as whale eye), averted gaze, hard stare
  • Ears: ears back or erect
  • Mouth: mouth closed, lips stretched back, rapid panting, lip licking
  • Back: hair standing up, much like human 'goosebumps'
  • Tail: tucked or held out rigidly
  • Overall body energy: stiff

Well it can't be all bad! Subsequently, here are some subtle signs of a comfortable pup:

  • Head: facial expression is neutral, muscles are relaxed
  • Eyes: squinty or slow blinking, relaxed soft eyes
  • Ears: relaxed in a natural way for how their ears lay on their head
  • Mouth: slightly open, slight pant, tongue can be out. Sometimes corners raise slightly upward (as if smiling)
  • Back: smooth coat Tail: kept in a neutral position (*sometimes a wag, but not all wags mean content and happy) Overall body energy: relaxed

Two dogs sitting in grass

So where to even begin? Communication, in its broadest sense, is an exchange of ideas and intentions. Figuring out, as best as you can, what may be the intention behind what your dog is trying to get you to understand, is a good starting point. Are there any unmet needs? It may be easier to help your dog understand a word you want associated with something if you pair it with what the dog is already trying to express to you first. For example:

  • If its been a while and you think your dog needs the bathroom, speak the word 'out' while walking towards the door
  • If you go for a walk at a certain time each day, say 'walk' while grabbing the leash
  • If you see your dog circling the treat area, say the word 'cookie' out loud as you open the cookie jar

This way you, the human, can also feel heard. Because everyone likes to feel heard. :) Learning how best to communicate with EACH OTHER can create a much deeper, richer relationship for you both. To be understood is where true connection begins.

About The Author

Lori Carscadden

Lori Carscadden is a Canine Behaviorist certified in Canine Nutrition with a specialized focus on kidney disease. She additionally holds a Masters Degree in Humane Education, as well as, a Bachelor's Degree in Humane Leadership. As a lifelong learner, Lori is currently obtaining her doctorate in Human/Canine Connections, also known as Anthrozoology.