Pet Training and Behavior

How to understand your dog’s gestures, vocalizations

October 14, 2011

A playful dog

Dog has enjoyed being ‘Man’s best friend’ since time immemorial. The man-dog association dates back to even pre-historic times when they helped man to hunt for food. Most of us are unaware that the present day’s dogs are descendants of the wild wolves. There are many similarities between the two species, although dogs are a milder counterpart of these wild animals, sometimes being unable to understand the cues of the dogs may lead to dangerous encounters.

Complexity level

A little knowledge of behavioral aspects and some education on these occasionally unpredictable pets through widely published books and journals one can easily bridge the communication gap. Mostly one can learn by simply observing one’s pet and deciphering its language through cues such as body language, facial expressions and vocalizations. Although most of the times we may comprehend what our pet dogs are trying to communicate, seldom conditions arise when we are caught unawares which at times might lead to fatalities. An astute observation and keen interest is thus always warranted and safe.


1. Body Language and Facial Expression


When a dog wags its tail vigorously accompanied with perked up ears, wide open eyes, relaxed body with front end lowered and rear end in air, excitedly bouncing or circling around with playful panting or excited barking or growling, it is exhibiting playfulness. This is the best time to play with your dog and indulge in a heart-warming round of game with the loved one.


A highly aggressive dog is easily recognizable, however, it is recommended to understand the unspoken cues so as to maintain a safe distance from such a dog. Ears forward or back or close to head, eyes narrow or staring challengingly, lips open with aggressive display of teeth, tense upright body and tail fluffed up and erecting straight from the body accompanied with sharp snarls, growl or loud bark is surely a sign of acute aggression.


A curious dog is hard to go unnoticed with that fixed look and side to side head turning. Usually in this stance the dog’s ears are perked up, eyes are wide open, teeth are covered, some amount of panting may be noticed, the tails up and wagging, body upright usually on tiptoe accompanied by excited barking or whining. In such cases, it appears as if it is either observing something seriously or engrossed in it trying to decipher the nature of the object or animal.


A definite way to accept the supremacy of the owner or any other member is by executing a submissive stance. The dog ideally would lie on the floor with its belly touching the ground or else lying on the back with its belly up, chin on the ground, ears flat and tail resting, sometimes accompanied by leaking urine, no vocalization or slight yelping. As wolves are dogs’ ascenders from the wild, dogs too live in packs and surely there has to be a pack leader. A submissive stance indicates acceptance of the owner or another dog as the leader.


The most significant cue when a dog is fearful is its action of tucking the tail between its hind legs. ears flat and low, eyes narrowed or averted, lips exposing the teeth, body tensed and crouched low in submissive position, shivering or trembling accompanied with low yelp, whine or growl. It is pragmatic not to corner the dog during this time as this might lead to it becoming aggressive and attacking.

On Guard:

When the dog’s ears are perked up, eyes wide open, teeth bare and gnashing, body stiff, tensed, with hackles up in a dominant aggressive position, tail held straight from the body and at times fluffed accompanied by loud alert bark or growl, it is a sign of an alert or guarding dog. This is a simple indication not to mess with the dog else that can lead to fatal encounters.

Relaxed State:

Perked up ears, dilated eyes not focusing on anything specific, mouth relaxed and a ‘smiling’ expression, normal posture, tail up and out from the body, wagging accompanied with whimpering, yapping or short high excited barks indicates the dogs is at ease and in a relaxed state.

2. Vocalization:

Besides the above cues, whining might indicate frustration, while whimpering might indicate the dog being anxious due to a wound or pain, while howling would mean communicating with other dogs, or even greeting the owner. Growling could mean a warning signal either to other dogs or strangers to “back off” while a manipulative grunt would simply mean it is coaxing its owner into giving it something of choice, whereas a characteristic bark when accompanied with any of the above cues could have varied meanings.

Things to watch out for:

Sometimes utmost caution is required while dealing with one’s pet or abandoned animals on roads and shelters. Animals can be unpredictable while tensed, agitated, afraid or hurt.The above cues if analyzed effectively can assist one in knowing what and how dogs communicate through wagging of tails, whining, grinning, howling, positioning their tails at varied degrees or pouncing.

Sometimes these actions could be playful and at other times they could be challenging thus maintaining safe distance and stance is advisable.

Some knowledge of the explicit and implicit cues can help you go a long way with your best friends while breeding high levels of compatibility with them.

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