Key concepts in the analysis of dog communication
Canine communication: a buzzword, but what next? Dog body language and reading dog signals are the key to understanding dog emotions. Get to know the most important signals, learn to recognize and understand them, and your pet’s world will no longer be a secret!
The topic of dog communication is increasingly appearing in social media, books and webinars for guardians. We are interested in the most important signals, specific dog behaviors and dog emotions. How to understand them? In our human relationships, we focus on talking and listening to each other. The ability to share thoughts, feelings and impressions helps us create strong bonds. So how to understand our dog’s needs, since he has a completely different way of communicating?
How do dogs communicate?
Dogs constantly communicate with us, even though they don’t use words. Instead of this they express themselves through gestures, looks, facial expressions and muscle tension. Interestingly, one particular behavior can have different meanings depending on the context, and there are different emotions hidden beneath the surface of that behavior. When we start observing our dogs’ behavior more carefully, we will notice many subtle signals that we might have missed before. This opens up the possibility of reading these signs and establishing communication in their own dog language. Thanks to this, we will be able to build more complete and lasting relationships, based on understanding and empathy.
Dog behavior analysis is a long-term passion of Zosia and Wojtek. The ability to understand the meaning of signals and the emotions that drive them is the key to building lasting relationships with dogs based on mutual trust and empathy.
The topic of communication with a dog has become very popular in our country thanks to the book written by Turid Rugass – “Calming signals. How dogs avoid conflicts. Since then, scientific progress in analyzing dog communication has advanced significantly, so some of the information contained in the book is no longer up to date, but it is still a good place to learn the basics. It is richly illustrated and was the first to discuss aspects of dogs’ body language, pointing to dog signals that dogs use to reduce tension, e.g. when meeting another dog. By reading dog signals, you can notice behaviors that could lead to conflict or aggressive behavior. The analysis of dog behavior is shown by how the dog turns its head, licks itself or uses its body. She popularized the term calming signals and assigned them to specific dog behaviors. Of course, nowadays we know that such a rigid understanding of dog emotions or signals is very limiting. When writing or talking about dogs, we try to emphasize an individual approach, observation and getting to know the dog. The gestures or reflexes themselves, such as a dog licking itself in a stressful situation or a person plucking their hair, do not have to be intentional, they can be simple reflexes, and understanding what lies behind the reflexes is much more important.
If you want to learn about calming signals and, most importantly, learn what is behind them and what messages your dog sends, check out our new book “Dog Decoder”in which we reveal the secrets of dog communication.
Alexa Capra, the second author we mention here, created an ethogram of the dog by dividing the behaviors into groups. Social behavior in dogs is primarily focused on demonstrative behavior, the purpose of which is to impress the other person and express one’s position in a given interaction. When we talk about demonstrative behavior, we refer to situations in which one individual tries to get to know another person better, which is a stark contrast to agonistic behavior, the purpose of which is either to remove or to increase the distance between them. Therefore, the first group of behaviors are demonstrative behaviors, while the second group are agonistic behaviors, including aggressive behaviors. Agonistic behaviors cover a much broader range of behaviors than just aggressive ones, but they are also part of this category. The purpose of these behaviors is to increase the distance between individuals.
The third group of behaviors are: behaviors related to stress, anxiety and de-escalation, that act instinctively. If a dog is stressed, it starts breathing heavily and squints, this is often not intentional behavior, but is a result of dogs’ natural reflexes. In such situations, the dog may be stressed or afraid of something. De-escalation behaviors often involve reducing the intensity of another individual’s behavior, usually demonstrative or agonistic behavior. We encourage you to read Alexa Capra’s publication, available to both people professionally dealing with dogs and enthusiasts of communicating with them. This is a valuable source of information on this topic.
The most common dog signals and their interpretation
tail wagging, often perceived as an expression of joy by caregivers, it is not clearly associated with a specific emotion. This is simply a sign of excitement in the dog. You can notice anxiety, fear or stress by observing the dog’s body posture—whether the tail is up or down, how the head is positioned, and how the animal is moving. Of course, tail wagging can occur in moments of joy, for example, when we come home and the dog greets us enthusiastically and shows its relaxed state by maintaining long eye contact and wagging its tail freely. In such situations, the facial expression is soft, without tension of the skin or muscles.
Lizany is another gesture that dogs use in various contexts. While a dog may lick strangers as a sign of affection, it can also serve as a way to push someone away. Understanding the context of the situation is key. For example, a dog lying next to us on the couch may start licking us as an expression of affection or as a form of relaxation. It is important to notice whether it is a pleasant and mutual moment for both parties.
Jumping, in turn, it is often seen as an expression of joy, but it can have different meanings. It can be nice to say hello, but it can also be used as a way to maintain distance, especially when the jump is unfriendly. Context and observation of the dog’s behavior are key to understanding intentions. The jump on returning home may be friendly, with the dog’s body relaxed and the behavior prolonged. Jumping may also signal the need to stop an object or person, or express a desire to mark territory.
Analyzing canine communication becomes much more complicated when we start to look closely at the context in which the dog displays a particular behavior. Thanks to this, we can assign them to specific situations and, with a certain degree of predictability, understand the basis of the motivation for this behavior. For example, a dog wagging its tail does not always have a clear meaning. In one situation it may express concern, while in another it may express joy – it all depends on the context and emotions accompanying the moment. Therefore, a key skill is to understand your dog’s body language and avoid generalizations when interpreting behavior.
The dog world is a fascinating area of observation and communication. Dogs are masters of reading our gestures and behavior, especially during walks. It seems that verbal communication is only part of what happens between humans and dogs. We can try to test it while walking, right? Animals are extremely sensitive to non-verbal cues, so turning in a direction can be like reading an open book for them.
It’s also worth noting how often people don’t return attention to the signals that dogs send. In urban spaces where dogs may meet many strangers, people sometimes fail to notice that the dog may not be interested in the interaction. It’s important to respect their space and understand when they need some distance. This is great advice for anyone who has a dog or just loves observing the fascinating world of dog interactions!
Signals in dog communication
Here are some points to consider when monitoring your dog’s reactions and helping him avoid stressful situations:
- Slowing down: If a dog slows down when it sees another dog, it may indicate uncertainty or stress.
- Solidification: A dog that suddenly stops moving may be signaling that it has noticed a potential threat and wants to assess the situation.
- Intense staring: Focused gaze may mean that the dog is analyzing the situation and may be prepared to respond.
- Body tension: If the dog tenses, it may be a sign that he feels uncomfortable and is ready to defend himself.
- Rapid breathing: A change in breathing rate may indicate an increased level of stress in your dog.
- Other stress signals: Also look for other signs, such as the tail down or between the legs, ears stuck to the head, or vomiting, which may indicate discomfort.
To help your dog avoid a difficult situation:
- Changing the direction of walking: If you notice these signals, turn your entire body in the opposite direction, signaling to your dog that it is safe to reroute.
- Encourage following: Gently encourage your dog to follow you, using a positive tone of voice and possibly a reward to build a positive response to the change in direction.
- Avoid walking in front of danger: Avoid directly confronting a potential threat, as this may lead to a conflict that the dog was trying to avoid.
Understanding these signals and responding with empathy can significantly improve the quality of walks and the relationship between dog and owner.
Communication with the dog
When people meet, they often run straight towards each other, extending their hands to shake in a gesture of greeting. In the dog world, this way of initiating contact would be quite unusual and potentially stressful. Looking at how dogs communicate with each other, we can notice that socially competent dogs approach each other more calmly, often avoiding each other and leaving scent trails.
It is worth remembering this, especially when walking your dog leash. Instead of forcing a direct approach, allow your pet to choose a more subtle form of contact – a long leash that allows more freedom can help. Even when passing other walkers on a narrow sidewalk, you can turn your body slightly outward, giving your dog a little more space. This small gesture can be helpful for dogs that feel uncomfortable in a noisy urban environment.
Basics of behavior analysis
Over the years, we have continued the process of learning dog language ourselves. We discover something new all the time and we want to share our discoveries! That’s why we invite you to the fascinating world of dog communication, which we tried to present comprehensively and in an accessible way in this course – get to know our dog communication analysis webinar.
Thanks to the course, you will learn about the multitude of dog signals and your eye will be sensitive to reading them. It consists of theoretical lessons, explaining basic issues and practical webinars, where we discuss real cases of dog-dog and dog-human interactions. We show how given situations or interactions can be interpreted and how to help a dog that finds itself in a difficult situation.
What will you learn?
- how to interpret dogs’ behavior,
- how to recognize good dog play,
- what strategies dogs choose to cope with stress,
- how to approach working with dogs that have various behavioral problems, such as aggression, excessive fear or reactivity,
- How to build good relationships between a dog and other dogs and people in urban conditions?