Animal Psychology Module 3

If Dogs Could Talk

What you will learn in this module:

3.1 Body language

3.2 Stances

3.3 Body language reference table

3.4 Smells

3.5 Sniffing

3.6 Urine and feces

3.7 Translating vocal language

3.1 Body Language

Dogs have an elaborate set of signals they use to communicate with one another. Their most important method of communication by far is body language.

Small details and gestures that you may barely notice can be significant in dog language. Facial gestures, general posture, position of the feet, tail position and action, the lie of the back, placement of the head, expression of eyes, and the lie of the fur can tell other dogs, and people what message the dog is giving. As well as reading the dog’s body language, it helps to interpret the signals by placing them in context – in other words to also read the situation he is in, and what is happening around him.


A dog’s overall posture is a good indicator of their general level of confidence. If a dog is worried about a situation, or how it may turn out, they will tend to keep their body low to the ground in an effort to signal that they are non-threatening. As soon as the worry passes or the situation reveals itself to be innocuous, their posture will return to normal. A confident dog holds themselves tall.


Similar to the body position, the tail position also indicates how the dog is feeling. Generally, the lower the tail is sitting, the less confident the dog. Dogs that are retreating from a confrontational or threatening situation will normally tuck their tails between the hind legs. Moreover, a relaxed tail position varies so much from breed to breed that you will need to be familiar with what normal is for your dog so you can read when it varies from this.

For example, a Pug’s tail sits upright and curls in a circle while a Greyhound’s naturally sits quite low.

It is when the tail changes position that it signals something specific. Here are a few general interpretations:

  • An upright tail with a wagging tip indicates interest.
  • When a tail is being wagged in a relaxed way from side to side involving movement of the whole hind quarters it indicates excitement, a desire to play, or both.
  • A slower, more exaggerated version of this wagging, more like swishing can indicate an intention for aggression, or a preparation for it.

Special Alert: Do Not Support Tail Docking!

Tail docking or the cutting off of puppies’ tails at an early age is now illegal in many countries, and allowed only by licensed veterinary practitioners in many others.

Despite claims of dogs barely noticing it by those who perform the procedure, it has been shown to cause considerable pain and trauma to dogs. Moreover, tail sensitivity can remain throughout adult life. Even more damaging is that by removing the tail you deprive dogs of their ability to give important communication signals.

In a 2008 study, scientists placed a robotic dog among a group of canines in an exercise area. For some of the time the robot had a wagging tail, while the rest of the time they had a stump for a tail. When the robot had a wagging tail, others approached playfully. When he had the stump, other dogs remained at a distance, were more wary, and showed their hesitation to read his signals. Not having a tail clearly puts a dog at a disadvantage when interacting with other dogs.

The good news is that tail docking is done purely as a ‘fashion’ exercise, and as people have become more aware of the consequences of the practice; the trend is dying out.


A stiff, straight back can indicate a low level of fear, anticipation, and anxiety. A rounded back may indicate that your dog is unsure – the hind legs will look like they are straining forwards while the brakes are on the front paws.


There is such a variety of ears among breeds, mixed breeds, and mongrels that it is difficult to generalize on the meaning of ear gestures and positions. Many are easy to interpret but you need to be an observant detective to read some!

The muscles at the base of the ear are what do the talking. So, concentrate on those if the ears are the hard-to-read, rigid type.

  • Ears pricked forwards suggest alertness and interest.
  • Ears pulled back indicate anxiety.
  • If they are pulled back, and also flattened this indicates fear and will probably be followed by an attempt to escape the situation.


When a dog wants to indicate they are withdrawing from an interaction or disassociating they will look away, usually by placing their head at right angles to the other dogs. In a threatening situation, the eyebrows and whole face may look tense and the whites of the eyes may be visible.


A relaxed dog will usually hold their jaw loosely and sometimes slightly open when in the presence of other dogs. If the atmosphere is tense, it is likely to be tightly shut. If the teeth are bared this could mean either fear or anger.

However, many dogs seem to know that a slight baring of the teeth is something that is greeted with a positive reaction from people. It gets them extra attention and possibly a reward, so it can be a signal of wanting to interact and please. It is hard to resist when we think our dogs are ‘smiling’ for us! Likewise, the cute tilting of the head to one side, like when they hear a sound that is interesting, can be used by some dogs as a means of getting our attention.

These gestures are typical examples of how domestication has influenced the evolution of dogs body language.

3.2 Stances

As you get to know your dog, you will recognize the combination of body positions and gestures that signify different dispositions. Here are some stances and what they signify:


This is a clear signal to other dogs and people that a dog is inviting play. The front legs are resting on the ground, the bottom and tail high in the air. At any sign they might be joined in some fun, the tail will begin to wag. The ears are up and forwards, the jaw is often open, and the eyes are relaxed and eager. They may raise a paw at the other dog or at a human’s leg and jump forward in a non-threatening way, and then run to tempt a chase.


If the play bow did not work, a dog might try a variety of other nudges towards play – bumping, nosing, barking, nipping, and pawing. The desire for play with either their owners or other dogs varies depending on the type of dog, and personality. Some show a much stronger desire for human interaction, and some just want to stick to their own species. The strong desire to interact in this way with people shows the strength of the bond between man and dog.

Playing often takes the form of chasing. It may include non-threatening mounting, wrestling, and tumbling. High pitched barking may accompany high excitement.


A fearful dog may initially freeze. The body posture will be low, the eyes round and wide, mouth closed, and the fur on the hind quarters and shoulders might stand on end. The ears will be reaching forward initially and then may rotate backwards and down. They might move backwards or try to escape. If they cannot escape, they may turn their head sideways, away from the direction of what is feared. The dog may bark in alarm or lie down with a lowered head that is turned away. Some fearful dogs will try to defend by showing aggression, especially if cornered.


When a dog feels threatened, they will pin their ears back, the lips will pull back into a snarl, and they will stare at the threat. The dog may turn their head to the side but keep the stare fixed, showing the whites of their eyes. Their body posture at this point will probably be low and more defensive than aggressive. They could snap to give a signal of the potential for more aggressive behavior. If it is responded to with direct eye contact or growling; it is likely to turn into a fight.


This is a more confident stance. The dog stands tall and as the threat approaches leans forward and raises their tail. If the potential for aggression escalates, their fur will stand on end over the back and shoulders. The lips will pull back into a snarl and they will start to growl as they continue to lean forward with a broad stance of the hind legs. The tail might be wagging quickly but stiffly, and remains raised. The dog may try to put their front paws on the other dog. If this is responded to submissively, it will not go any further.

3.3 Body Language Reference Table

and Friendly
Ears are perked up, eyes wide open, and alert looking. Mouth is often open. Body posture relaxed, hind quarters may be wiggling. Tail wagging, a little raised.
or Playful
Ears are perked up and can lean forwards. Eyes wide open. Owners will notice playfulness in the look. Mouth is relaxed and a little open but not baring teeth. Body is relaxed. Tail is wagging excitedly and the dog can be circling, jumping, doing play bows, and running back and forth. Some excited, non-threatening barking or play growling.
Alert Dog is listening intently with ears perked up and rotating to tune in. Eyes wide. Mouth is closed or a little open. Body shows normal standing tall posture. Tail is up, slightly wagging. Potential whining or short barks.
Anxious Ears veering backwards, eyes narrowing. Mouth closed. Body looks stiff, tense, and is slightly lowered. Tail is also lowered. No sound or possibly a soft bark or whine.
Fearful Ears are pinned back, eyes are narrowed, and head turned to the side showing whites of eyes. Lips are drawn back showing teeth. Body is tense and crouched low. Tail is between legs. Whining, growling or soft yelping.
Aggressive Ears may be forward or back. Eyes are staring. Mouth is open, lips drawn back, teeth showing, snarling, growling, and assertive barking. Body is tense and erect, hair standing up on neck, dominant posture. Tail is straight out from body.
Submissive Ears are down, flat on head, eyes are narrowed or may be wide open showing whites. Lips are pulled back and may be licking a person or animal. Body posture is low, or lying on back in belly up position. May leak urine or release scent from anal glands. Tail is between legs. May whimper, whine or yelp in fear.
Predatory Ears are alert and forward and tuning into sounds. Eyes are wide open, focused and staring. Mouth is closed. The body is tense, rigid. Body probably low to the ground in preparation for pouncing. The tail is straight and low. Quiet.
Guarding Ears are perked up and forward. Eyes are wide open and alert. Mouth is slightly open and teeth bared. Possibly snapping and will snarl, growl or bark loudly and assertively. The body is tense and erect, hair standing up. The tail is stiff and held out from the body.

3.4 Smells

Dogs have a highly developed sense of smell. It is their dominant sense and the one they use in preference to all the others. They have more than 40 times the number of olfactory receptors that humans do, and they are located closer to the air. As this leaves them much more vulnerable to damage, they are replaced roughly once a month. The receptors are of many different types – about 800. Each designed to decode and record information about particular smells. This information is then relayed to the brain.

With this sophisticated system they are able to distinguish tens of thousands of different odor molecules.

We will talk about their highly refined sniffing in the next section but we also want to make a point about smells. Dogs personal smells are part of the tapestry of information they communicate to each other. As owners reluctantly witness, dogs are keenly interested in the smells from other dog’s feces. It holds information about gender and reproductive stages. Dogs use it for recognition and information gathering about its social group. They  show a similarly determined focus on the smells from urine. They intently sniff urine left by other dogs, then sometimes urinate over it, and sometimes not. It is not quite understood how they make that decision. It may have something to do with mating and competition among males for copulation with females.

3.5 Sniffing

Body language can allow dogs to pick up signals about each other from a distance. However, when they come into closer contact, sniffing provides a whole new language full of information.

Rapid sniffing allows for the molecules of an odor to remain in the nasal passages long enough to decode the information it contains. The rapidly inhaled air traps the odor molecules so they can be analyzed. Some dogs can sniff up to 6 times a second.

Dogs use sniffing as a meet-and-greet exercise. They gather lots of information by sniffing the head and rear areas. Males tend to want to sniff the rear area first; most females like to start at the head, mainly the nose and ears. Dogs are usually more intent on doing the sniffing than on being sniffed, and can often end up circling. The most information is thought to come from the male and female glands, and the anal glands. It is thought that this information tells other dogs about gender, age, reproductive states, disposition, and possibly social status.

3.6 Urinating And Faeces

When a dog goes to urinate in his own yard, he will probably do it all in one spot or two. The same dog, when out and about in his local area for a walk, will preserve his supply to squirt in small amounts along the way. Mostly, this is done wherever he detects other dogs have urinated before him. Males have a much stronger inclination to do this than females. The reasons are not fully understood. We know urine contains lots of personal information but what dogs use it for is still not quite clear. It is believed that it may be correlated with territory marking, and an attempt to warn other dogs whose territory it is. It could also be the male dogs way of advertising himself to local females, and at the same time overriding the information left by the previous male.

Feces provides personal information about each dog. During defecation, the anal sacs release odor rich substances including pheromones. Again, dogs show a keen interest in checking out feces left by other animals and will often urinate on them.

3.7 Translating Vocal Language

Dogs hearing is approximately four times more sensitive than humans. They can hear much higher frequencies that we can, and they can distinguish between similar sounds. This could be, for example, to allow them to detect small prey. It is worth remembering how sensitive this sense is for them and to consider how it might affect them when they are surrounded by loud or shrill noises.

As dogs have such sensitive, tuned-in hearing, their sounds are a good way of communicating with others in their social world. Different vocalizations must have significant meaning, a lot of which we may never understand. In the wild, wolves howl but rarely bark. So, habitual barking seems to be a result of domestication and the relationship with humans.

One thing we know about barking is that it happens as a response to a change your dog detects. Often, it is in response to a sound we cannot hear. In these instances, dogs will often look to their owners to measure their response. As if to say, “So what are we going to do about that?” with perked up ears. It seems they are looking for direction as to how to respond, and a reassuring voice allows them to come out of alert mode. Sometimes, it is in response to a more alarming sound, and incessant barking will ensue. This type seems to be predominantly associated with protecting territory.

It can be difficult to stop incessant barking. If there is no apparent reason, it could be due to boredom. Try to make sure your dog has enough exercise and stimulation, especially before you go out.  A dog whose needs are fully satisfied is less likely to act out of boredom.

Feeding just after exercise, and before you leave, will ensure your dog will sleep happily

Sound Meaning
Grunting Puppies grunt in the company of each other, and adult dogs can too. It is often a way of claiming space.
Whining Dogs whine when they are feeling fearful or in pain. It can also be a sign of submission or to get attention from owners. Excited whining may happen upon meeting a loved one they have not seen for a while.
Yelping Usually indicates a frightened, distressed, or injured dog.
Growling Though some growling can be playful, most growling indicates the guarding of food, possessions or territory, and can also signal aggression. Putting it together with other body language and situations will help you distinguish.
Howling Dogs in domestication do not often howl. It may happen when their sensitive ears are subjected to high pitched sounds like in some music. Some sensitive dogs howl when left alone.
High pitched 
Indicates fear or anxiety.
High pitched, intermittent barks 
or yelps
Playful expressions of excitement.
Low pitched barks close together Signs of aggression.

Well Done!