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Dog communication: What is your pet trying to tell you?

Ever wonder what your dog’s trying to tell you? Those barks, whines, and tail wags might be more than just cute quirks. A fascinating study by the Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences sheds new light on dog communication, helping us interpret the meaning behind different vocalizations.

“Deciphering what dogs are trying to communicate with a particular vocalization depends on the tone of their communication, their body language, environmental factors, health, level of comfort, and emotion, such as stress, fear, or hunger,” explained Harmony Diers, a manager for the Dog Aging Project.

Spectrum of barking in dog language

Dogs communicate a lot through barking. The pitch, how often they bark, and what else they do with their body can indicate what your dog is feeling.

High-pitched: Excitement

A high-pitched bark often means your dog is excited about something fun, like going for a walk or seeing a friend. You can usually tell this kind of bark because your dog will also be wagging their tail and jumping around.

Repetitive: Boredom or seeking attention

If your dog barks the same way over and over, they might be bored or lonely. Dogs who don’t get enough toys, playtime, or exercise may bark this way to get your attention. Try giving your dog more things to play with or taking them for longer walks.

Sharp: Alert or warning

Sharp, loud barks are how dogs warn you about something strange or scary. This could be someone they don’t know coming to your house, another animal outside, or a loud noise. 

This type of barking is a warning that your dog is on high alert. By watching what makes your dog bark this way, you can learn what they see as a threat.

Short: Playfulness

A short bark can mean your dog wants to play or is giving a gentle warning. Playful barks often come from a dog with a relaxed body, showing they want to have fun. But a short bark can also be a way for a dog to say “leave me alone” without getting aggressive.

High-pitched, frequent Bark: Anxiety

If your dog barks high-pitched and often, they might be anxious or scared. Dogs bark this way when they are feeling stressed, worried, or afraid. There are many reasons a dog might feel anxious, like being left alone, loud noises, or new places. 

Anxious barking often comes with other signs of stress, like pacing, whining, or acting nervous. If your dog barks this way a lot and you don’t know why, take them to the vet or a dog trainer. 

Whining and sighing in dog communication 

Dogs whine and sigh to communicate their needs. Whining can mean they want attention, playtime, or to go outside. It can also signal anxiety, stress, or pain. A persistent whine, especially if new, might mean your dog is sick and needs a vet visit.

Dog sighs also have different meanings. A long sigh while being petted means your dog is happy and relaxed. But groans can also mean they are frustrated, like when their meal is late or playtime ends.

While whining and sighing are usually normal, they can sometimes be signs of health problems. If your dog whines or groans a lot, especially if it seems unusual or they have other symptoms like limping or not eating, it’s important to see a doctor.

Howling as a form of dog communication

Howling is an ancient way for dogs to communicate, just like their wolf ancestors. Dogs howl to talk to each other over long distances, to let others know where they are, and to claim territory.

“Howling can be a response to external sounds – such as sirens, music, or other dogs’ barking – or used when claiming territory, communicating to a pack or family members, or alleviating feelings of isolation,” explained Diers. 

At home, your dog’s pack includes you and any other pets. They might howl to tell you they are there, to show how they feel, or to get your attention if they need something. Howling helps dogs communicate and stay close to their pack.

Some dogs even howl along with people. This is a way for them to bond with you and enjoy spending time together. It’s not just about their wild instincts, it shows how much they love being part of your family and sharing experiences.

Warning growls in dog communication

Growling is a nuanced vocalization that dogs use to communicate discomfort, fear, or a warning. It’s crucial not to punish a dog for growling. It’s their way of expressing that they are not okay with the current situation. Recognizing and respecting a growl can prevent escalations and allow for a peaceful resolution.

There are different types of growls that can offer clues to your dog’s specific emotions:

  • Defensive: Often accompanied by a defensive posture, including showing teeth or a stiffened body, signaling the dog feels threatened and is asking for space.
  • Fearful: This growl may occur when a dog is scared. Their body might be lowered, and the tail tucked, indicating a desire to avoid confrontation.
  • Playful: It’s important to note that dogs may growl during play, which is normal and should be distinguished from growls of discomfort or warning. These growls are usually lower in pitch and accompanied by playful body language.

Dog’s body language

Dogs also use their bodies to talk to us. By watching their posture, tails, and faces, we can learn how they’re feeling. 

Tail wagging

The tail wag is a classic canine expression, but it’s important to remember that not all wags are created equal. Here’s how to decipher the tail wags:

  • Happy and playful: A loose, relaxed wagging tail paired with floppy ears and a happy face is a sure sign your dog is feeling excited and playful. They’re likely up for some fun and interaction.
  • Nervous or upset: A stiff wag held high or a very fast wagging tail can indicate arousal, anxiety, or even aggression. Be sure to observe the context and other body language cues to understand the full message.
  • Scared or uncomfortable: A tail tucked between the legs is a universal sign of fear, submission, or discomfort. Your dog is not feeling confident and may need some reassurance or space.

“A barking dog with a wagging tail and relaxed ears and face may be happy and barking from excitement, while a barking dog that is standing stiff with ears at attention may indicate they feel threatened,” explained Diers.

Body posture

A dog’s overall posture can provide valuable additional context to their emotional state. Look for these clues:

  • Content and relaxed: A relaxed posture with a soft, open facial expression generally means your dog is content and comfortable. They’re happy to be around you and feel at ease.
  • Threatened or defensive: Conversely, a stiff, still body with alert ears and narrowed eyes could indicate a dog feels threatened or is preparing to defend themselves. This is a sign to proceed with caution and avoid confrontation.

The path to better dog communication

Being able to interpret what your dog is trying to communicate opens doors to a stronger connection. You’ll be able to provide better care based on their emotional needs. Training becomes more effective and positive when you consider your dog’s perspective.

Understanding dog communication is also beneficial for vets, shelters, and public safety. Vets can diagnose and treat behavioral problems, while shelters can create calmer environments for dogs. Furthermore, this may help people recognize signs of aggression in unfamiliar dogs.


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