Dog-Human Talks: Body & Vocal Signals Explained

As a dog owner, one of the most important things you can do for your pet is to understand and communicate effectively with them. Dogs are highly social, intelligent animals – with mental capacities comparable to 2-year-old humans. They communicate with each other and humans through various cues.

This guide provides an overview of how dogs attempt to communicate their emotions, so you can better understand, control, and meet the needs of your furry friend.


Understanding Dog Body Language

From fear and aggression to happiness and excitement, dogs use body language to show their feelings. Attention to your dog’s posturing can help you detect their moods and avoid unexpected and undesirable behaviors, like dog bites. Here are some familiar body cues and what they might mean:

1. Tail position

You can tell a lot just by looking at your dog’s tail. A high tail usually indicates happiness, alertness, and curiosity. If a dog tucks their tail between their legs, it typically means they feel submissive, fearful, or anxious. Besides the position, tail wagging can also emphasize happiness, while shivering denotes fear and discomfort.

2. Ear position

Did you know that dogs can move their ears independently? It allows them to hear better and judge the direction of noises. If your dog’s ears are facing forward and standing at attention, it can mean they’re curious about something. If they flatten their ears, it can mean severe discomfort, fear, or aggression.

3. Posture

Like humans, dogs can tense up or raise their hackles in tense situations. Conversely, a loose, relaxed posture usually indicates a happy or confident feeling.

4. Facial expressions

A dog’s expressions can be as varied and deep as a human’s. Though, experts say it can depend on the context of the setting and other cues. For example, a smile can be a signifier of excitement. However, if your dog is smiling at other dogs, it can show submissiveness. It might be a snarl if they smile and tuck their tails or push back their ears.

5. Eye contact

If your dog is making consistent eye contact, it may mean it’s trying to understand you or wants something, but it may also be a sign of aggression. Conversely, if it’s avoiding eye contact, they may feel guilty or not want to interact with you now. Again, context is key.

Vocalizations in Dogs

Dogs may also communicate through the noises they make. This goes both ways. As you raise your dog, you can use your vocalizations to express to your dog, such as a happy, high-pitched tone to excite them or a low, stern tone to indicate disapproval. 

1. Barking

Barking is probably the sound you’ll hear the most from your pet, and it can mean various things. Dogs can bark to show excitement or fear, warn against a perceived threat, and initiate communication with other dogs. It’s essential to pay attention to the context of the barking to get what your dog is trying to say.

2. Growling

While often seen as a sign of aggression, growling can also signal a warning that they feel threatened or uncomfortable. Some dogs may growl while playing as they get too excited or if another person approaches too closely while eating.

3. Whining

Dogs can whine to express excitement, fear, or anxiety. They might also use whining to tell you they need something, like food or to go outside. If you spend too much time with your furry friend, they may also whine when you leave due to separation anxiety.

4. Howling

Like whining, dogs can howl when lonely or separated from their owners or companions. Sometimes, they also howl to announce their presence to other dogs and in response to high-pitched noises like other dogs howling or the sirens of a passing emergency vehicle.

Other Cues in Dog-Human Communication

Besides body language and vocalizations, dogs have a few tricks up their proverbial sleeves when they want to tell you something.

Smells and scents

Scientists have estimated that a dog’s sense of smell is up to 10,000 times more precise than a human’s. They can use a single sniff as a written description, letting them know details like another dog’s emotional state, its gender, its health, and other details. For more information, dogs stick their noses beside each other’s rears and private parts.

Additionally, dogs often sniff at humans to understand details about them. If your dog is sniffing at you more than usual, it may mean they’re curious or detects something different about you – like your emotional state or health.

Touch and physical contact

Dogs like to get physical – they often nuzzle into or lean against humans to show affection. It’s like a child that hugs your leg or holds your hand. Dogs can also use touch to get your attention or indicate a need. Your pup may paw at you or nudge you with its nose to get you to feed or let them outside.

Gestures and Signals

The devastatingly cute belly-up position generally means one of two things – either your dog wants attention and belly rubs, or they show that they trust you and aren’t a threat. 

The first reason is that your dog gets a comfortable, soothing, and relaxing feeling when they receive belly rubs. For the other reason, your dog may do it to detect aggression from you, like if you’re telling them off for something.

Another gesture dogs make is the head tilt, which typically indicates curiosity from hearing or seeing something you don’t usually say or do.

Communication and Training

Effective communication – sending and receiving – is critical for successful dog training. Your dog’s body language, vocalizations, and other cues can tell you how receptive they are to information.

If you base your training on positive reinforcement and don’t send mixed signals, you should be able to make a better bond and adjust your dog’s behaviors accordingly. Another great tip is to keep training sessions short and focused. Your dog can only handle so much in a day, and the effectiveness of the training may fade if it goes on too long.

Paws-itively Perfect Communication

Learning the traits of your dog’s body language, vocalizations, and other cues can help you better understand and communicate with them. And understanding is the key to building a strong, happy, and healthy relationship with your furry companion, improving training effectiveness, and reducing unwanted behaviors.


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Josie Patra comes with 7 years of blogging experience. She has completed her degree in medicine and studying post-graduation in veterinary science. Josie has two dogs of her own and is an ardent pet lover.

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