Ever wonder what your dog is trying to say?

How do dogs communicate??

If you have been around dogs much, you are likely aware that dogs are quite good at communicating. But, are you aware of all the ways in which they ask us questions by displaying behaviors to get a response from us humans?

Let us count the ways:

  • Eye Contact – dogs are really good at eyeballing us when they want to communicate something. And how cute is that? Eye contact indicates that a dog is comfortable with the human it is looking at, which is a really great sign that a 2-way conversation can take place. And good dog training is a 2-way conversation between the dog and the human. By allowing a dog to ask questions and offer behaviors to figure out what we want from them, we can teach a dog just about anything – we just have to be clear about what we want, and then when we get it, we must reinforce the behavior with something the dog wants, like a tasty treat or a round of tug or fetch. What a great way to build a relationship with our dogs!
  • Vocalization – yes, barking or growling is often not a desired behavior when it becomes excessive. But, barking and growling, as are many other dog behaviors, are natural forms of communication for dogs and often can be beneficial to us humans. In fact, it is likely one of the primary reasons humans domesticated dogs, to sound the alarm when something dangerous was lurking. It’s a main way dogs communicate.  I like it when Riley lets me know when someone is outside because it makes me feel like I can count on her to sound the alarm if there was ever something of concern out there. When I have determined that all is safe, I can ask her to stop barking, which she has learned to do because she is rewarded for it. Simple, huh? She’s happy, I’m happy and I feel safe with her there to let me know all is well…or not.
  • Body Language – Dogs use body language in many ways to communicate how they are feeling – whether happy, curious, unsure, angry, fearful, stressed, or any number of other emotions. Dogs have a variety of feelings much like we do, and it is our responsibility to learn what their body language is telling us so we can understand them better. That way we can respect what they are saying and avoid missed communications. Another main way dogs communicate is through their body.  Have you ever seen a dog turn its head away from a child as the child approaches it? The head turn means the dog is not comfortable being approached by the child and it is saying “please stay away from me, I’d rather not interact with you.” If the child does not understand this and continues to go toward the dog, the dog’s discomfort might escalate to fear or stress, which can prompt more drastic measures of communicating its feelings, such as showing its teeth or growling. Children often get bitten by dogs because the dog’s body language was not respected appropriately. Other ways dogs communicate discomfort are avoiding eye contact, lip licking, ears back or out to the side, blinking their eyes, wagging their tails while it is in a low position, shrinking their bodies to be smaller, and even showing their belly. It doesn’t always mean they want a belly rub – it likely means “please don’t hurt me, I want peace.” There are so many ways in which dogs use body language to communicate to us and other dogs. I highly encourage you to learn how dogs use body language to communicate so you can understand them better. Dog Decoder is a great resource for this.

Dogs are very smart and will respond to our wishes as long as we clearly communicate what we expect of them in a way they can understand, and as long as we offer them some type of reinforcement. Because let’s face it – dogs do what’s reinforcing. If they are not responding in the way we would like, the reason is not because they are “stubborn” but because they simply don’t understand us, or we haven’t taught them that the behavior we are asking them to do will be rewarded.

It’s our responsibility to learn how to communicate with dogs in ways they can understand, and to respect their ways of communicating to us. When we do this with greater skill, just imagine what kinds of fun communication we can have with our dogs! Riley loves to communicate with me, especially when she wants to play a game…(because our games always involve treats, which she loves!)