How Your Puppy Communicates - dummies

By Sarah Hodgson

Does your dog communicate? Yes! Here’s an overview of your dog’s body talk: Consider how learning how to listen to your puppy will improve your relationship. Puppies are like kids — they are much more eager to listen to you if you learn to listen to their side of the story, too.

A great influencer who shaped modern dog thinking long before it became scientifically cool to do so was Nicholas Dodman, DVM. His books outlined dogs’ emotional lives and communication styles. When it comes to communicating, dogs and humans differ in these key aspects:

  • People talk with language and need to listen to one another for meaning.
  • Dogs use postures and subtle gestures to symbolize meaning: If you want to hear what your dog is saying, you need to use your eyes.

It took nearly two decades for scientists to follow Dr. Dodman’s lead, but when they did, they confirmed roughly everything he’d already taught us.

What your dog’s posture is saying

Your puppy’s posture is a funny thing: It’s easier to remember if you compare it to yourself or someone you know well. Both pups and people “shrink” when they’re confused, fearful, or anxious; they also rise with excitement. They have a resting pose when life is least stressful, and a few favorite sleeping poses. Observe your pup and note, down to the very last detail, their body language, paying special attention to tail and ear positions.

<tip>

Consider how your puppy will read your posture when something extraordinary happens, like a visitor’s arrival. All puppies get excited when people visit: Your home is their den, and the door is the mouth of the den. If you, in your desperation to save face, start shouting and pushing your puppy as someone enters, the whole arrival scene is one big fiasco. Instead of redirecting your puppy or showing calmness by example, you’ve just taught your puppy that greetings are a wild-’n’-crazy scene.

Learn to translate your puppy’s postures and to redirect or soothe them when the mood they show doesn’t reflect the scene. You’ll also learn how their ears, eyes, mouth, tail, mouth, and vocalizations can be interpreted — use the following figure and table for quick reference.

puppy postures
Illustration by Barbara Frake

Understand what your puppy is telling you in these five postures.

Reading Your Puppy’s Body Language
Body Part Fearful Undecided Relaxed Alert Defensive
Eyes Squinting, darting, unfocused Focused or shifting Focused or dozing Attentive, focused Glaring, hard
Body Low, arched, pulled back and down, hackles possibly up Shifting from forward to pulled back, approaching but then immediately avoiding the person Relaxed Comfortable posture, leaning toward an interest, moving from side to side, or jumping if excited Pitched forward, rigid, tense
Tail Tucked under belly, wagging low Tucked low under belly, arched slightly over the back, or fluctuating between the two Tail down in a resting position Still or gently swinging in a relaxed or slightly elevated position Still above rump or above arched back in a tight, repetitive wag
Mouth Pulled back, often in a tense, nervous semi-smile Tense, trembling, or nervous licking Relaxed Panting, normal, possibly parted in a vocalization Tight, unflinching, and possibly parted in a growl or vocalization

Puppy eyes: blinking, social gazing

Your puppy’s eyes will tell you a lot about how they’re feeling, from adoration to hopefulness to outright fear. Learn how you can interpret your puppy’s five key expressions to help adjust to eye situations:

  • Relaxed eyes: Notice your puppy’s eyes when you’re enjoying a moment together. Comfortably gazing at you in calm and mutual adoration, pupils (that dark circle in the center of their eye) in proportion to the colored ring, AKA the iris? That’s their relaxed eye.
  • Squinty, appeasing eyes: If your puppy is squinty it means one of three things — they are trying to appease you (or another person or dog), they are slightly fearful (you can tell if they’re rump is lowered), or there is something actually caught in their eye. (Not usual, but if they scratch or rub their eye, you should check.)
  • Hard eyes: A dog who stares with hard eyes and a rigid body is feeling threatened or defensive. If pressed this dog — or puppy — will bite.
  • Whale-eye: This happens, and is not a good thing, when a puppy is so stressed, frustrated, or anxious by a stimulus or situation that you can actually see the whites of their eyes. If this happens to your puppy, do whatever you can to calm them by removing the stimulus or taking them out of the situation.
  • Avoids eye contact: If your puppy avoids your eye contact, they are either feeling overwhelmed by your interactions (are you staring down at them intensely?) or are just trying to ignore you altogether (not an uncommon behavior when they are in their adolescent phase). If you can’t tell right off the bat, check out their other indicators (ears and tail, in other words) to see if they are up (attitude) or down (conflicted).

Puppy tails talk

Like your puppy’s eyes, the tail is extremely expressive and can be used to gauge how they’re feeling throughout the day. As you’ll discover, there’s more to a tail wag than what meets the eye: Its position as well as the tempo of the wag determine whether your puppy is happy or anxious or feeling more assertive.

To get a read on your puppy’s tail, observe its position. First, figure out their neutral tail — where it sits in relationship to their rump when they’re calm. Using that position as tail-neutral, see whether you can identify these “tell-tail” emotions:

  • Happy: Your puppy will lift their tail slightly and wag it from side to side when they’re happy.
  • Excited: When your puppy is excited, they will raise their tail a bit more and wags more frantically; this often happens when you return home.
  • Arched: A puppy who feels threatened (generally a behavior not seen before 7 months of age) may arch their tail stiffly over their rump. This puppy will stand their ground! Proceed with caution!
  • Tucked: A puppy who tucks their tail beneath their body is trying to look small. Often accompanied by cowering, this one is signaling fear or anxiety.

Your puppy’s tail wag doesn’t always signal joy. Learn these tempos so that you can distinguish a happy wag from an anxious or aggressive wag:

  • Happy swing: Puppies who wag their tails so hard that their bodies wiggle are extremely happy: Discover what makes your puppy feel this good — maybe a special treat, toy, or happy voice — and use these things to train and reward your pup as often as possible.
  • Sway: A sway is a shorter wag, and the emotion varies depending on where it’s held. A sway on a slightly elevated tail expresses interest or arousal. If the tail is swaying at rump level, your puppy is showing submissiveness. A below-rump sway on a puppy displays fear.
  • Twitch: Twitching tails convey intense emotion. One that’s raised above the rump signals agitation. A low twitch? This puppy is panicking.

Want to know just what your puppy thinks about Aunt Edna’s visit? Look at their tail — if it’s wagging on the right side, they’re happy. Tails that wag to the left communicate caution or insecurity.

What your puppy’s ears are telling you

Your puppy will also use their ears to express emotion and will often use them in concert with their tail: Ears and tail up convey confidence and a bold curiosity; ears and tail lowered communicate caution or fear. Learn these poses and all the other ear expressions in between these two extremes.

  • Relaxed: All puppies have different ears. Some flop, others point, and some stand part way up. Study the ears when your puppy is relaxed to determine their resting pose.
  • Seal-like: This adorable, seal-like look is copped when your puppy draws their ears back: When it’s paired with a full swing of their tail, you no doubt have a happy and excited puppy on your hands.
  • Antenna: This is the classic one-up, one-down expression that lets you know your puppy is focusing on two different noises at the same time. Your puppy is one of a very special species that can be tuned into different sounds simultaneously.

Did you know your puppy can move their ears independently of one another? This adaptation helps them track sound coming in various directions — neat!

  • Pitched forward: When a puppy pitches their ears forward, they’re making a statement: Generally paired with a raised tail and forward body lean, this puppy is trying to make themselves look bigger. Look around you — whatever your puppy is staring at may be causing excitement or frustration.
  • Pinned back: With ears pinned back, and body curved and lowered to the floor the puppy’s message is feeling small and powerless.

Mouth: Grin or grumble, stress panting, play panting, yawning

Your puppy’s mouth is similar to your own: When cracked in an open, smile-like curve, it generally conveys joy (unless the puppy is panting due to hot weather or excessive activity, like bone chewing, a stint at the dog park, or exhaustive play). A closed mouth is common when a dog is sleeping or playing independently. A tightened lip pout is seen in puppies who are concentrating or doing something unpleasant, such as meeting a new dog or smelling something foul. A growl where facial muscles are tightened and lips are curled communicates that your puppy is feeling either defensive or seriously afraid. Note your pup’s mouth positions so that you become fluent in their lip language.

  • Mouth slightly open: A relaxed jaw that’s slightly open is similar to a child’s impish or happy grin. The lips are loose and wrinkle-free.
  • Mouth shut: Dogs generally keep their mouths shut when relaxed or sleeping, but if your puppy closes their mouth in a social situation, pay attention to what’s going on around you. If your puppy is feeling stressed, a tightly clenched mouth or puckered lip communicates growing agitation.
  • Lip licking: Your puppy will lick their lips when they’re anxious or overstressed. If you can, remove your puppy from the situation or calm them by holding them to your heart or tucking them behind or beneath you.
  • Taut face, lips in C position: If your puppy’s face is stretched and taut, check their lips for a quick gauge of their emotional state. If your puppy feels threatened or trapped, their lips will pull back into a “c” curve.
  • Taut face, lips in V position: If your puppy is feisty and reactive, clearly ready to take on the world, their offensive reactions can be noted in lips that pull back into a “v” curve.
  • Yawning: Puppies yawn when they’re tired, or when copying another dog or person; yawning may also be a way of releasing stress. Keep your puppy’s emotional landscape in mind when determining a mood or emotion.
  • Panting: Your puppy will pant when they’re thirsty or hot but may also pant if they’re stressed or overstimulated. Keep the situation in mind when interpreting this behavior.

Dog barking and other vocalizations

Your puppy will have a variety of vocalizations, starting with small, pitiful whimpers when they’re newborn and helpless to the ear-splitting, headache-causing yaps of a puppy feeling lonely, frustrated, or defensive.

  • Bratty barking: These puppies want attention! They space the barks out, and the level is monotone and consistent.
  • Stress whining: These puppies want something they can’t have or reach: It might be a toy or your attention or a completely random item — but you’ll know the instant it happens, because it will pull on your heartstrings. Beware, though — if you reward whining, you get more and more and more whining until it becomes a lifelong habit.
  • Reactive barking: These puppies alert to any sound or stimulus. Because the sound is high-pitched and repetitive, your goal will not be to stop your puppy — reactive barkers are born, not made — but to develop an off switch so that you can curb the barking once it starts.
  • Baying, or howling: This is generally a breed-specific sound isolated to hound-type dogs and Nordic breeds. These dogs use their voices to communicate with other dogs and to express frustration when left alone or feeling stressed.
  • Play growl: Puppies often growl during play, especially during confrontational games like tug-of-war, physical wrestling, or face-to-face sparring. It can and should be easily calmed or diffused by redirecting the play to an object or chewing type of toy.
  • Pleasure seeking: Many dogs growl or moan when enjoying a rub or scratch. Unless the sound is paired with a stiff posture and direct, hard-eyed stares, it’s a pleasurable sound.
  • Throaty growl: A warning growl that’s paired with a stare and tense body posture often occurs over resources. It’s common for puppies to communicate their boundaries with other dogs; however, if they’re growling at you, get professional help. Though you can redirect your puppy if this type of aggressive stance continues, it may become a habit. And you know what they say about habits: They’re hard to break.
  • Belly growl: A more serious growl emanates from the belly. This growl means the dog is about to bite. Often paired with raised hackles, flattened ears, and exposed teeth, this dog will lunge and snap or bite the source of its frustration.

There’s a direct parallel between dogs who bark and people who yell: See if you can make the parallel. A puppy barks at seeing the neighbors walking their dog. If you yell, your puppy will interpret your raised and frustrated tones as barking. Though your puppy may stop barking for the moment, they’ll go back to barking the next time around, because your yelling was simply interpreted as backing them up. Yelling isn’t helpful.

See also “Helping Your Puppy Communicate a Need to Go.”

Dogs communicate with their fur!

Your puppy’s fur is filled with lots of scents that signal — to every dog they meet — their demographics as well as their latest poop-rolling adventure. None of it matters much to us humans, although when their fur stands up on end, take notice. When your puppy’s hair lifts along their spine (technically referred to as piloerection), your pup is trying to tell you how they’re feeling at the moment — and it’s not always confident. Pay close attention to these instances

  • On the offensive: A thin line of hair that stands up along the spine and continues down the back. Dogs with this pattern of piloerection may appear overly confident but will likely turn aggressive.
  • Anxious: A broad patch around the shoulders. On the flip side, this pattern is spotted in dogs that are less confident and even fearful.
  • Aroused and conflicted: Patches of hair raised at the shoulders and the base of the tail and no raised hair on the back. This pattern covers a range of reactions that a dog may be feeling, from ambivalent to conflicted.

Piloerection is just another fancy word for goose bump.

What’s the lure of being a dog whisperer? Dogs don’t listen to whispering people. Pride yourself instead on being a dog listener, because taking the time to listen is most important.