The Language of Dogs

The Language of Dogs

Today we talk about communication! We will indeed discuss how to interpret the positions and gestures of our four-legged friends.

Understanding the language of dogs

The language of the dog is unique, it belongs to them, and they use it to communicate both with their peers and with us humans.

This may seem like an apparently simple consideration, but it is instead fundamental if we want to establish a deep understanding with our furry friends because it invites us to understand them and, above all, to communicate with them effectively.

The opposite would be impossible, but we can at least strive to learn the body language of the dog, so as to understand it, help it, and make it happy on many different occasions.

And, consequently, by understanding the language of the dog, we can also be closer and accomplices in the special relationship we have with our four-legged heart. This article is therefore dedicated to understanding the language of the dog and contains some of the major signals that it sends us every day, with the consequent interpretation.

The sources are multiple because we have drawn inspiration from a real 'bestseller' on the language of our four-legged hearts: "Understanding Your Dog: A Guide to Behavior and Training" by Canine Instructor Turid Rugaas, who, in the late 1980s, studied and formalized the 'Calming Signals' as a fundamental part of her communication system within the social group.

We have consulted numerous articles by expert educators and asked for information from professionals who have helped us define in the best possible way the basics of the language of the dog.

Our four-legged friends communicate in such different ways, but we can strive to understand the language of the dog better.

How to interpret the language of the dog

This 'super' question is at the basis of the relationship that every owner has with his four-legged friend because understanding the language of dogs is an adventure to say the least special!

How many times have we wondered (or rather... we have directly asked our furry friend): "But what's wrong with you?", or "What do you want to tell me?", "Are you hungry/thirsty/afraid/do you want to play?", "Why are you barking like this? What's happening?"

To find out, we need to understand how dogs communicate and, in this regard, we start by introducing the term "non-verbal language", that is, all the set of non-linguistic signals such as gestures, postures, facial expressions.

It is important to keep in mind that this type of language in the dog is voluntary, done consciously to send a message, while in humans, it is often involuntary.

As an example, we can think of the moment when we are stopped at a traffic light, on a two-lane road, a car approaches us and instinctively we look at the driver but then, to avoid him thinking that we are staring at him, we start adjusting the rearview mirror of the car, focus on the steering wheel, or look away from him and focus on the road.

Here, in this case, we probably wouldn't even have noticed that we had performed these behaviors, but in the dog, every posture and gesture is evaluated and used for a very specific purpose.

In this regard, Turid Rugaas introduces cut-off signals, derived from the behavior of the dog's closest ancestor, the wolf. These signals, called "interruption", are aimed at minimizing the possibility of conflict.

According to the Norwegian Canine Instructor and writer, dogs indeed have their own original language and an equally original ability to communicate with their peers.

These signals that apparently aim to interrupt aggression actually aim to prevent it because dogs, like wolves, are animals that do everything to avoid conflict. In other words, the language of the dog is always aimed at resolving conflicts preventively.

The problem is that we humans often create friction situations! But the language of the dog can be codified through signals, which pets send us over and over again throughout the day with the aim of calming, 'pacifying' situations and relationships, so that life flows calmly and happily for everyone.

Now is the time to discover them.

Who knows what the pet wants to ask with that sweet face resting on the legs…

The language of the dog: a typical example

In her book, Turid Rugaas gives the example of a person who wakes up in the morning a little grumpy because they probably wanted to stay in bed a little longer, but they have to take their furry friend for a walk... (and who hasn't experienced that at least once?).

So, they look at him and talk to him in a somewhat irritated tone, take the leash, and the pet bursts with joy! He jumps, runs, barks... but the owner, in a decisive and also a little annoyed tone, orders him: "sit!". Then the furry one yawns before sitting down.

The owner then pulls him, and what does he do? He turns his back and puts his nose to the ground.

After a bit of free running in the park, the owner calls the furry one, perhaps with a somewhat stressed voice, and he runs happily in another direction. The owner thinks he's doing it on purpose to waste time (so he gets irritated), but he sniffs the ground, makes an even wider turn, and looks away...

This simple story contains many examples of signals related to the language that the pet sends to its human owner at various times... simply to invite him to calm down!

According to Turid Rugaas, there are at least thirty signals belonging to the dog's language, some more obvious, others imperceptible, which over time, patience, and experience can become easier to grasp and recognize.

The dog's language when approaching us

The dog's language when approaching us, as well as other people and other furry friends, is rich in calming signals.

According to Rugaas, fast movements generally have a threatening intention, while slow ones have a calming intention.

For example, if he meets his friend and both slow down until they stop, this is a signal of 'peace', which they do simultaneously to release tension because neither of them wants to come to a conflict.

Similarly, if he turns his head quickly, it is a signal of perceived threat, but if we humans also turn our heads, we can respond clearly using the same language, that is, communicate that we are not a threat to him.

Even turning sideways or giving the back is a strong calming signal, and both belong to the dog's language.

For this reason, Rugaas advises us to turn our backs if a four-legged friend behaves aggressively: barks, growls, but also when he is excited and wants to play too much and jumps on us.

Turning our backs will most likely calm him down.

The furry one approaches us, and it's time to pet and cuddle him as he deserves.

Why does the dog wag its tail when it sees its owner

The wagging of dogs' tails is adorable, and we always understand it as a great manifestation of happiness and affection.

In most cases, the dog's language wants to tell us just that: so much love!

But, in many cases, the language of the dog's tail can have different meanings, or signify something else, especially in cases of tension or situations of possible danger.

In this case, the pet wags its tail along with other signs that show disturbance or tension, or even fear, such as whining or howling.

Wagging the tail is always part of the dog's language, it is a calming signal for people and for itself, a kind of 'white flag' that the furry one raises to ask for universal peace.

In general, the pet wags its tail when it feels:

  • Happiness: in this case, the language can convey excitement because it sees its pet mate
  • Desire for interaction: to invite interaction and play, communicated with a wagging at a constant but not too fast pace
  • Anxiety: often communicated with a rapid and low wagging
  • Nervousness: if the tail is stiff and pointed upwards, moving with short and rapid movements, it can be a signal of threat and sometimes even the prelude to aggression. The position of the tail is fundamental in understanding the dog's language!

Summarizing, here are the main forms of language related to the positions and movement of the tail:

  • Horizontal tail communicates a feeling of joy or trust
  • Tail tucked between the legs transmits a feeling of fear or discomfort
  • Pendulum tail means sadness or disgust
  • Raised tail can communicate expectation or even anger. And what does it mean when the dog has its tail between its legs?

As seen, in the dog's language, the tail plays a very important role. When the tail is tucked between the legs, it can mean both surprise and fear.

The factors can be multiple, from encounters with people or other animals, as well as from an environment that does not convey security.

The pet then puts its tail between its legs to protect the rear area because, as we know, dogs use sniffing in this place as a presentation ritual.

If we learn the language of the dog, the tail can communicate many things to us.

What does it mean when dogs lick us?

How many times have we received an "unexpected kiss"? Or a wet and prolonged "cleaning" on the face and hands?

Also in this case, there is no universal answer, we must decode the language of the dog based on the situation and also the character of the pet.

It is important to consider that dogs use their tongue to 'taste', record information, and transport it to the brain through the vomeronasal organ.

They do this with everything, from things that seem good to us, such as grass, to those, for us, less 'pleasant' such as secretions from other dogs.

In this case, the vomeronasal organ comes into play, which is used by the dog to detect pheromones, chemical messengers that transmit information between individuals of the same species.

Pheromones are deposited by other dogs through markings and release a lot of information such as reproductive status, but also any emotional states.

Licking, for them, is equivalent to discovering, but also to taking care of their own cleanliness and well-being, as well as that of the humans they love.

The language of the dog, in this case, can therefore speak of affection and the desire to take care of us, but the furry one can also lick to request attention or to interrupt a potentially dangerous situation (and here it becomes a form of language oriented towards peace, that is, a calming signal).

If he licks us a lot and continuously, this behavior can become a kind of stress reliever, and in this case, it is important to seek advice from experts, while in other cases, it may correspond to a polite request to ask us to stop doing something that bothers or distresses him.

This little dog probably loves giving kisses to its owner.

Why does the dog lie on its back?

When a dog lies on the ground on its back, it can be an unmistakable message: scratch my belly!

Interpreting it as a gesture of submission is also very common, and in both cases, it is a correct interpretation.

However, when the dog lies down with its belly touching the ground, it's a clear calming signal, especially employed by high-ranking breeds to restore calmness to the pack.

Who wants to scratch this little furball's belly?

What does it mean when dogs sit? And when they sit on top of or on our feet?

Like us humans, dogs sit multiple times a day. Often it's a natural, relaxing position for them, but at other times, the dog's body language can have a specific meaning.

If during a walk the furball sits down, the reason may simply be fatigue, especially if the 'outing' has been going on for quite some time. However, this posture can also mean that the dog wants to change direction, probably because something worries or frightens them.

And what does it mean when a dog sits on our feet?

This behavior is quite common and, like in other cases, it can have different meanings depending on the context and the character of our four-legged friend.

The first reason may be the search for physical contact: the human feet are the most 'comfortable' parts to reach, and by leaning on them, dogs express their desire to be close to us.

It's often a relaxing pose, suitable for indoors as well as outdoors. In these cases, sitting on our feet may signify a request for contact, but there may also be a possessive and territorial motivation, especially in dogs with a more pronounced inclination towards this behavior.

Lastly, it's important to consider that during cold seasons, dogs may want to sit on our feet to protect themselves from the cold ground. In this case, the dog's body language speaks of affection and a search for greater comfort.

Is this adorable poodle resting or perhaps seeking some attention?

What do dogs want to tell us when they cry?

Dogs can whimper, cry, and even howl when they express a need, an alert, discomfort, or even pain. Therefore, we reiterate that, even in this case, the dog's language deserves attention to be well interpreted.

Furry companions can cry even when they are overexcited for play, so it's important to clearly understand the context in which the crying occurs.

For example, if the four-legged friend cries at night, it could be trying to tell us something, maybe it's hungry or needs to relieve itself. If it does so inconsolably, it could communicate that it's afraid of being alone and needs support and closeness.

And what if the dog cries and wags its tail at the same time?

Crying and wagging its tail might seem like two seemingly dissociated behaviors, and in this case, it's important to understand the context and other signals of the dog's language.

Crying and wagging its tail at the same time can indeed communicate:

  • Urgent need for attention
  • Excitement due to anxiety
  • Discomfort, with a request to be helped and cared for
  • Great joy, especially in puppies

In this case as well, the dog's language must be decoded based on the pet's character and the specific situation, trying to observe other signals such as its gaze.

What does the four-legged heart want to tell us?

What do dogs want to tell us when they look at us?

This is one of the most common questions about dog language, and as explained by our dog trainer Chiara, who integrates and supervises our texts, different interpretations can coincide with different behaviors.

According to Dog Trainer Luca Spennacchio, understanding what it means when the pet looks at us for a long time depends on the context and its personality. It can mean affection towards us, a request for attention, but also a request for space or distance.

How is the language of dogs interpreted in this case?

If the pet has a good relationship with us and with people in general, it might simply want to maintain longer eye contact, in this case, the language of the dog speaks to us of affection.

Gazing at the beloved human for a long time releases oxytocin (the so-called love hormone) in both, and this happens especially in prolonged gazes, even more so if there is interaction with caresses and affectionate gestures, as demonstrated by research from Azabu University in Japan published in the journal Science.

But our buddy can also look at us for a long time if seeking attention or awaiting instructions, and this is especially valid for trained and highly cooperative four-legged hearts. In this case, if engaged in many activities, especially family ones, this gaze may communicate 'what is there to do?'.

At the same time, when it looks at us, this can mean a request, perhaps for food, attention, or play...

In this case, the language of the dog corresponds to a signal of need, meaning the furry one is silently telling us what it needs to be happy.

Can a dog's gaze show anxiety or concern? Yes, in some cases, they may turn to us with prolonged gazes also to seek comfort, especially in tense or problematic situations.

A classic example is when they look at us in the veterinarian's waiting room, a situation that is rarely comfortable and where our friend may seek our eyes for reassurance and comfort.

And when the gaze is threatening? It can depend on various factors and situations, and generally, the language of the dog in this case communicates a request for space and distance, intimating to move away. This can be a language of peace, a calming signal, which preemptively brings peace in a potentially tense and dangerous situation.

Sometimes a glance is worth more than a thousand barks.

The language of the dog when it runs towards us

As seen, the language of the dog when it comes towards us can have different modes and, consequently, different meanings. If the four-legged heart runs, there may indeed be agitation, both in a positive and negative sense.

It is interesting, in this case, to note the direction it takes. When it is straight, it means trust: it trusts us.

When dogs curve, it is a defensive signal, which they exhibit especially with their peers.

Similarly, a dog that does not know us may curve when coming towards us because it does not yet trust us, and it is our task to earn it.

What energy and vitality in the run of this Cocker Spaniel!

Why dogs retreat

Dogs may retreat in a potential situation of danger, tension, or fear.

As in other cases, the language of the dog consists of many different aspects, which certainly include gait but also gaze and the position of certain parts of the body, such as the ears or the tail.

Why dogs shake themselves

The language of the dog in this case is mostly related to a physiological need, namely, to get rid of what 'is in excess', such as water, dust, dirt...

But shaking off is an action that brings well-being to the pet, so it may adopt it as a kind of natural stress relief because shaking off means regaining balance and getting rid of anxiety... (wouldn't we also need it sometimes?).

Likewise, it may shake itself off as a form of self-assurance. This gesture feels good, so it may do it when it feels the need to regain physical well-being and serenity.

Pets can shake themselves to clean their fur, but also as a 'rebalancing' gesture.

What does it mean when the dog perks up its ears

In the language of the dog, ears play a very important role and are closely linked to the emotional sphere.

When the dog perks up its ears and slightly brings them forward, it shows a typical attitude of attention; it is probably studying the situation or something around it has caught its attention. If the pet is very focused at that moment, it might tilt its head first to one side and then to the other.

When the pet brings its ears forward, this gesture means that it is attentive, curious, interested. It is no coincidence that even for humans, we say that something has made us 'perk up our ears', meaning it has intrigued or alerted us.

Conversely, if it brings its ears back, it may mean that the pet is feeling concerned, puzzled, and even submissive, especially when associated with lying down on its back.

What might this little furry one have seen to perk up its ears?

The language of the dog when it lays down only its front paws

According to Rugaas, when dogs lower themselves on their front paws, almost as if they're bowing, this is most likely a playful invitation.

If the dog holding this position is playful and cheerful, then this is almost certainly the expressed intention. However, sometimes the dog can lower itself onto its front paws and remain still, or lower itself and immediately rise up with a sudden movement. In this case, it can be a calming signal sent to another dog or even to other animals, which is quite common if, by chance, it encounters horses.

This adorable pet is lying on its front paws, most likely can't wait to play with us!

Why do dogs yawn?

In some situations, the language of dogs may seem clear to us, while in others, it may be more ambiguous.

We might think that yawning falls into the clearer category because, as humans, we tend to associate this gesture with tiredness or boredom.

According to Turid Rugaas, dogs often yawn as a calming signal.

Considering that pets have the mission to pacify and defuse potential 'fuses', it's not uncommon for them to be yawning in a corner while we argue or even fight in the family.

This is their way of telling us to stop or letting us know that the current situation is stressing them out. And, in the same way, now that we have learned this dog language, if the pet is very agitated or nervous, we can yawn ourselves to communicate this calming signal to them.

This Border Collie is either very sleepy or wants to bring some peace among the humans.

The language of dogs in everyday life

As seen, understanding a dog's gestures is a special adventure, just as interpreting the language of dogs is, and consequently, acting to meet the requests it is communicating.

The idea that our four-legged heart almost always wants to 'calm down' a potentially tense or dangerous situation is very encouraging, but once it communicates this to us with its language, it is our task to act accordingly, both in relationships with its peers and with us humans.

Therefore, understanding the language of dogs is something we should all strive to do in everyday life, perhaps starting with observation, and then understanding which gestures it makes most frequently.

All the love in the world, enclosed in one look.

The key word is understanding, a splendid term that can help us make our pet feel better in many situations, as well as live our friendship in a deeper way, strengthening it day by day.

The blog article was written with the advice of Chiara Festelli, Canine Educator.

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