Dog communication

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Dogs communicating that their intentions are not aggression but play - a form of metacommunication

Dog communication is any transfer of information on the part of one or more dogs that has an effect on the current or future behavior of the dog(s), or another animal. Dogs were the first domesticant and they have developed complex ways of communicating with humans and forming relationships. Dogs have either developed or been artificially selected for traits, skills and behaviors which allow them to live successfully with humans. These communication behaviors include vocalization, pointing, marking, body posture and direction of eye gaze. Dogs use all the major sensory modalities to communicate, including visual (e.g. movements of their bodies and limbs), auditory (vocalizations), tactile (touch) and gustatory communication (scents, pheromones and taste). Humans communicate with dogs by using audible and tactile signals.

Dog-human communication[edit]

Both humans and dogs are characterized by complex social lives with rich communication systems but is it also possible that dogs, perhaps because of their reliance on humans for food, have evolved specialized skills for recognizing and interpreting human social-communicative signals. Four basic hypotheses have been put forward to account for the findings. (1) Dogs, by way of their interactions with humans, learn to be responsive to human social cues through basic conditioning processes.[1] (2) By undergoing domestication, dogs not only reduced their fear of humans but also applied all-purpose problem-solving skills to their interactions with people. This largely innate gift for reading human social gestures was inadvertently selected for via domestication.[2][3] (3) Dogs’ co-evolution with humans equipped them with the cognitive machinery to not only respond to human social cues but to understand our mental states; a so-called theory of mind.[4][5] (4) Dogs are adaptively predisposed to learn about human communicative gestures. In essence they come with a built-in “head start” to learn the significance of people’s gestures, in much the same way that white-crowned sparrows acquire their species-typical song [6] and ducklings imprint on their own kind.[7]

The pointing gesture is a human-specific signal, is referential in its nature, and is a foundational building-block of human communication. Human infants acquire it weeks before the first spoken word.[8] In 2009, a study compared the responses to a range of pointing gestures by dogs and human infants. The study showed little difference in the performance of 2-year-old children and dogs, while 3-year-old children’s performance was higher. The results also showed that all subjects were able to generalize from their previous experience to respond to relatively novel pointing gestures. These findings suggest that dogs demonstrate a similar level of performance as 2-year-old children that can be explained as a joint outcome of their evolutionary history as well as their socialization in a human environment.[9]

One study has indicated that dogs are able to tell how big another dog is just by listening to its growl. A specific growl is used by dogs to protect their food. The research also shows that dogs do not, or can not, misrepresent their size, and this is the first time research has shown animals can determine another's size by the sound it makes. The test, using images of many kinds of dogs, showed a small and big dog and played a growl. The result showed that 20 of the 24 test dogs looked at the image of the appropriately sized dog first and looked at it longest.[10]

Additionally, most people can tell from a bark whether a dog was alone or being approached by a stranger, playing or being aggressive,[11] and able tell from a growl how big the dog is.[12] This is thought to be evidence of human-dog coevolution.[12]

See also: coevolution

Visual communication[edit]

Dogs communicating emotions through body positioning were illustrated in Charles Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals published in 1872.

Two dogs communicating aggression; note the teeth baring and lip curl.
Licking can mean different things depending on the context.
This dog is not "smiling" but is communicating that it is defensive about its food treat.

Mouth shape: Mouth relaxed and slightly open; tongue perhaps slightly visible or draped over the lower teeth - this is the sign of a content and relaxed dog.[13]:84
Mouth closed, no teeth or tongue visible. Usually associated with the dog looking in one direction, and the ears and head may lean slightly forward - this shows attention, interest, appraising the situation.[13]:85
Curling or pulling the lips to expose the teeth and perhaps the gums - is a warning signal showing the weapons (teeth), the other party has time to back down, leave or show a pacifying gesture.[13]:85
Mouth elongated as if pulled back, stretching out the mouth opening and therefore showing the rear teeth - shows a submissive dog yielding to the dominant dog's threat.[13]:85

Head position: A dominant or threatening dog that looks directly at another individual - this is a threat, it is pointing its weapons (muzzle/teeth) at them.[13]:Ch8
A dominant dog turning its head to one side away from a submissive dog - this is calming them, indicating that it is not going to attack.[13]:Ch8
A less dominant dog approaches a dominant dog with its head down, and only on occasion quickly pointing its muzzle towards the higher-status dog - shows no fight intended.[13]:Ch8

Yawn: A dog yawn - as with humans, a dog will yawn when tired to help awaken it. Also, a dog will yawn when under stress, or when being menaced by aggression signals from another dog when it can be used as a pacifying signal but not a submissive signal. Both humans and dogs can defuse an aggressive situation by turning their head away and yasning.[13]:89-90

Licking & sniffing: Licking behavior can mean different things depending on the context and should not be simply interpreted as affection. Dogs that are familiar with each other may lick each others' faces in greeting, then they begin to sniff any moist membranes where odors are strongest i.e. mouth, nose, anal regions and urogenital areas. These greetings and identification sniffs may turn to licking as well. For mating behaviors, this is done more vigorously than when greeting each other.[13]:91 Licking can communicate information about dominance, intentions and state of mind, and like the yarn is mainly a pacifying behavior. All pacifying behaviors contain elements of puppy behavior, including licking. Puppies lick themselves and their litter-mates as part of the cleaning process, and it appears to build bonds. Later in life, licking ceases to be a cleaning function and forms a ritualized gesture indicating friendliness.[13]:92 When stressed, a dog might lick the air, its own lips, or drop down and lick its paws or body.[13]:95

Ears: Ear position relates the dog's level of attention, and reaction, to a situation or animal. Erect ears facing forward means the dog is very attentive. They lay their ears back for the sounds surrounding them and also when in a submissive state.

Dogs with drop ears, like Beagles, can't use these signals very well, as the signals first developed in wolves, whose ears are pricked. Wolf-like dogs (such as the Samoyed or Husky) will, when content and happy, often hold their ears in a horizontal position but still forward. This has been referred to as the "wolf smile".

A dog communicating anxiety; note the white "half moon" eyes, nose licking and sideways glance.

Eyes and eyebrows: While dogs do not have actual eyebrows, they do have a distinctive ridge above their eyes, and some breeds, like the Labrador Retriever, Gordon Setter, Rottweiler, Bernese Mountain Dog, German Shepherd, and Doberman have markings there. A dog's eyebrow movements usually express a similar emotion to that of a human's eyebrow movements. Raised eyebrows suggest interest, lowered brows suggest uncertainty or mild anger, and one eyebrow up suggests bewilderment. Eyes narrowed to slits indicate affection for the person or animal the dog is looking at.

Feet and legs: Although a dog's feet lack the dexterity of human hands, a dog can use them as an avenue of communication. A dog might stamp its feet, alternating its left and right front legs, while its back legs are still. This occurs when the dog is excited, wants something, or wants its owner's attention. Pointers tend to tuck one front leg up when they sense game nearby.

This behavior is not communicative so much as the dog exhibiting a fixed-action pattern called "the eye stalk." It is also common for dogs to paw or scratch for objects they desire. Many dogs are trained to mimic a human handshake, offering a paw to a human stooping down and offering their own hand in exchange. Dogs might playfully slap each other with their paws to show gratitude toward one another.

Tail: How high or low the tail is held, in relation to how the dog's breed naturally carries its tail, and how it is moved can signify the dog's mood. When the tail is held high, it shows that the dog is alert and aware; the tail between the legs means that the dog is frightened. If the fur on the tail is also bristled, the dog is saying it is willing to defend itself or pups. If the dog does not have a tail, or it has been shortened or removed via docking, then similar actions may occur with just the hind quarters.

Small, slow wags of the tail say the dog is questioning things around the environment it is in. Either it is not sure whether it should submit, the other creature is friendly, or confused about its surroundings. Large, fast wags of the tail may be a sign of a happy, excited, or an energetic dog, but can also signal aggression.

Dogs are said to exhibit a left-right asymmetry of the tail when interacting with strangers, and will show the opposite, right-left motion with people and dogs they know.[14]

A dog holding its head to one side and its ears forward to focus on a sound.

Auditory communication[edit]

Long distance contact calls are common in Canidae, typically in the form of either barks (termed "pulse trains") or howls (termed "long acoustic streams").[15][16] The long-distance howls of wolves[17] and coyotes[18][19][20] is how dogs communicate.

By the age of four weeks, the dog has developed the majority of its vocalizations. The dog is the most vocal canid and is unique in its tendency to bark in a myriad of situations. Barking appears to have little more communication functions than excitement, fighting, the presence of a human, or simply because other dogs are barking. Subtler signs such as discreet bodily and facial movements, body odors, whines, yelps, and growls are the main sources of actual communication. The majority of these subtle communication techniques are employed at a close proximity to another, but for long-range communication only barking and howling are employed.[21]

Barks: Dogs bark for many reasons, such as when perceived intruders (humans, dogs, or other animals unknown to them) approach their living space, when hearing an unfamiliar or unidentified noise, when seeing something that the dog doesn't expect to be there, or when playing. Barking also expresses such emotions as loneliness, fear, suspicion, stress, and pleasure. Playful or excited barks are often short and sharp and often made when a dog is attempting to get a person or another dog to play.

Dogs generally try to avoid conflict; their vocalizations are part of what allows other dogs to tune into their emotions, i.e., whether they're aggressive or are in a playful mood.

The bark of a distressed or stressed dog is high pitched, repetitive, and increases its pitch as the dog becomes more upset. For example, a dog that suffers separation anxiety may bark when left home alone.

Some breeds of dogs have been bred to bark when chasing; for example, scent hounds whose handlers use the bark to follow the dog if it has run out of sight. Coonhounds and Bloodhounds are good examples. Such barking is often called "baying" or "singing" because the sound is longer and more tonal.[22]

Some research has suggested that dogs have separate barks for different animals, including dog, fox, deer, human, squirrel and cat.[23]

See further: Bark (sound) including bark control training

Growls: Growls can express aggression, a desire to play, or simply that the dog doesn't want to participate in what's about to happen next (being picked up for example). Most pet owners have therefore been urged to treat growls with special attention: always consider the context of a growl and exercise caution. If the threat is very serious, then the dog will usually start off with a very low toned but strong growl that rises in tone if ignored.

Howls: Howling may provide long-range communication with other dogs or owners. Howling can be used to locate another pack member, to keep strangers away, or to call the pack for hunting. Some dogs howl when they have separation anxiety. Dogs howling can also be caused by musical instruments, like harmonicas.

Whines: Whining is a high-pitched vocalization that is often produced nasally with the mouth closed. A dog may whine when it wants something (e.g., food) wants to go outside (possibly to excrete) wants to be let off the leash (possibly to greet another dog or a person) or just wants attention. A very insistent dog may add a bark at the end of a whine, in a whine-bark, whine-bark pattern.

Whimpers: A whimper or a yelp often indicates the dog is in pain or distress and is often emitted by dogs that have been bitten too hard during a play-fight. The whimper or yelp is used only when the dog intends to communicate its distress to a pack member (or human) to whom they are submissive or friendly, and the other dog or human is expected to react positively to the communication; dogs engaged in serious fights do not whimper lest they betray weakness. Dogs also whimper when they are physically abused or neglected by people.

Yelps are often associated with the lowering of the tail between the legs. Yelping can also indicate strong excitement when a dog is lonely and is suddenly met with affection, such as when a dog is left alone in a house during the day and its owner comes through the door late at night. Such yelping is often accompanied by licking, jumping, and barking. Yelping is distinct from barking in that it is softer, higher pitched, and lower volume.

Dogs will often feign injury by yelping to gain the upper hand over other puppies during play. Play yelps are often confused for a sign of pain or distress: the dog not running away after the yelp occurs reveals the ruse.


External links[edit]


  1. ^ Udell, M.A.R., Wynne, C.D.L., 2008. A review of domestic dogs’ (Canis familiaris) human-like behaviors: or why behavior analysts should stop worrying and love their dogs. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 89, 247–261
  2. ^ Hare, B., 2007. From nonhuman to human mind: what changed and why? Current Directions in Psychological Science 16, 60–64
  3. ^ doi:10.1016/j.tics.2005.07.003
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  4. ^ Miklósi, Á., Polgárdi, R., Topál, J., Csányi, V., 2000. Intentional behaviour in dog–human communication: an experimental analysis of “showing” behaviour in the dog. Animal Cognition 3, 159–166
  5. ^ Miklósi, Á., Topál, J., Csányi, V., 2004. Comparative social cognition: what can dogs teach us? Animal Behaviour 67, 995–1004
  6. ^ Marler, P., 1970. A comparative approach to vocal learning: song development in white-crowned sparrows. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology 71, 1–25
  7. ^ Lorenz, K., 1965. Evolution and Modification of Behavior. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  8. ^ Butterworth, George (2003). "Pointing is the royal road to language for babies". 
  9. ^ Lakatos, Gabriella (2009). "A comparative approach to dogs’ (‘'Canis familiaris’’) and human infants’ comprehension of various forms of pointing gestures". doi:10.1007/s10071-009-0221-4. 
  10. ^ Faragó, T; Pongrácz P; Miklósi Á; Huber L; Virányi Z; Range, F (2010). Giurfa, Martin, ed. "Dogs' Expectation about Signalers' Body Size by Virtue of Their Growls". PLoS ONE 5 (12): e15175. Bibcode:2010PLoSO...515175F. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0015175. PMC 3002277. PMID 21179521. 
  11. ^ Brian Hare, Vanessa Woods (8 February 2013), "What Are Dogs Saying When They Bark? [Excerpt]", Scientific America, retrieved 17 March 2015 
  12. ^ a b Katherine Sanderson (23 May 2008), "Humans can judge a dog by its growl", Nature, doi:10.1038/news.2008.852, retrieved 17 March 2015  research available here
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Coren, Stanley "How To Speak Dog: Mastering the Art of Dog-Human Communication" 2000 Simon & Schuster, New York.
  14. ^ "Asymmetric tail-wagging responses by dogs to different emotive stimuli", Current Biology, 17(6), 20 March 2007, pp R199-R201
  15. ^ Robert L. Robbins, "Vocal Communication in Free-Ranging African Wild Dogs", Behavior, vol. 137, No. 10 (Oct. 2000), pp. 1271-1298.
  16. ^ J.A. Cohen and M.W. Fox, "Vocalizations in Wild Canids and Possible Effects of Domestication," Behavioural Processes, vol. 1 (1976), pp. 77-92.
  17. ^ John B. Theberge and J. Bruce Falls, "Howling as a Means of Communication in Timber Wolves," American Zoologist, vol. 7, no. 2 (May 1967), pp. 331-338.
  18. ^ P.N. Lehner, "Coyote vocalizations: a lexicon and comparisons with other canids," Animal Behavior, vol. 26 (1978) pp. 712-722.
  19. ^ H. McCarley, "Long distance vocalization of coyotes (Canis latrans)," J. Mamm., vol. 56 (1975), pp. 847-856.
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  21. ^ Fox, Michael W. (1971). Behaviour of Wolves, Dogs, and Related Canids (1st United States ed.). New York: Harper & Row. pp. 183–206. ISBN 0-89874-686-8. 
  22. ^ baying - definition of baying by The Free Dictionary, 2015-05-05 
  23. ^ Derr, Mark. "Dogs' Vocalizations Aren't All Bark". New York Times News Service. Retrieved 2008-01-04.