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Dog-Human Communication

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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  • The whimper – anxiety (I'm miserable)
  • The whine – frustration (can be inadvertently reinforced as an attention-getting behavior)
  • The growl – back off
  • The howl – I can't find you (long distance communication, loneliness, misery)
  • The bark – different types of bark mean different things. There are greeting barks (excitement/happiness), alarm barks, barking for attention and as a threat (frequently reinforced by the person's response)

    The Look

  • Direct eye contact – looking for attention or serving as a threat (depending on the context)
  • Averted eyes – submission/deference
  • Looking at an object – to direct the owner to the object in question, whether a ball that has rolled under a couch or a door that is creating an impasse

    Head/Neck Posture

  • Up – attention or challenge
  • To the side/turning away – deference/attempts at avoidance
  • Head held low – submission


  • Tense muscles – subconscious sign of impending fight or flight
  • Relaxed body, relaxed musculature – easy going attitude
  • Head held low but rear end elevated, tail wagging – I want to play


    We can read the dog's mood from the tail position/movement, but the tail is not really intended to communicate anything to humans. However, when the tail is up it means the dog is actively interested (a confident, attentive gesture). Tail tucked is submission; tail horizontal is neutral mood or indifference; tail movement (wagging) reflects the dog's energy level/excitement level.


  • Movement toward a person is designed to get their attention.
  • Movement away from a person transmits the dog's uncertainty about that person. The dog's movement away from the person is a defensive move.

    However they manage it, and however we manage to interpret it, there can be no doubt that dogs can get their message across to receptive owners and can often direct a person's behavior to suit their needs. Though deep philosophical discussions are not possible, basic wants and needs can be transmitted, sometimes with remarkable clarity and fluency.

    The reverse also appears to be true. If we are sad, our dogs seem to pick up on this, perhaps spending increased time in close proximity to us and changing their demeanor toward us. Sense of smell comes into a dog's reading of a person, too. Some dogs can tell if a person with diabetes is becoming hypoglycemic (low blood sugar), presumably because they detect the sweet smell of "ketosis" (caused by altered fat metabolism). Other dogs pay inordinate interest to malignant tumors and, because of their interest, direct the owner's attention toward them. Yet others anticipate seizures in a seizure-prone person before the individual is aware that there is something wrong.

    As owners learn more about their dog's abilities to communicate with them, they build a more harmonious and more fulfilling relationship. The more we can understand about what our dogs are trying to tell us the better dog owners we will become. Some people have lengthy conversations with their dogs. The dog clearly cannot understand much of what is being said, but he may realize that he is getting attention, may recognize occasional sounds, and will probably pick up on the mood of the person talking to him.

    Recently, it was reported that reading a telephone directory to a dog using different intonations for otherwise gibberish communication produces responses from the dog that match the tone of the reader's voice. For example, reading people's names, addresses, and telephone numbers in a happy tone caused the dog to act happily, head up, standing tall and tail wagging, with the dog seeming to appreciate what was being said. Conversely, if a similar list was read in a morose voice, the dog would act sheepish or depressed, mirroring what he thought to be his owner's mood. For dogs, voice intonation and actions often speak louder than words.

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