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Canine Communication

Debra F. Horwitz, DVM, DiplomateACVB
Veterinary Behavior Consultations
St. Louis, Missouri

What is communication? Communication is a message between a sender and a receiver. . Owners frequently misunderstand a dog's expectations in social communication and group living and this misunderstanding can lead to behavior problems. Communication is a behavior that has a goal and a function. In essence communication is an action that takes place between a sender and a receiver. 1 For communication to be functional, the receiver must understand the message. The information that is transferred between sender and receiver can have 4 possible outcomes: 1.) benefit the sender and receiver, 2.) benefit the sender and manipulate the receiver, 3.) disadvantage the sender and benefit the receiver (eavesdropping), 4.) disadvantage the sender and the receiver (spite).1 Although owners often feel that the fourth option spite is taking place, most likely what is occurring is a miscommunication between species. Without clear communication problems can arise. Understanding how dogs communicate requires knowledge of canine body postures and facial expressions as well as understanding the context of the behavior.

The understanding of canine communication directly impacts our ability to understand behavioral problems in dogs. When we discuss canine communication we rely primarily on information gathered from the study of wolves. Wolves live in groups or packs and therefore have evolved a social structure to deal with group living. An integral part of any social structure is communication between members. Communication is used to help settle disputes, establish leadership, claim territory and aid in communal activity. Canine communication relies heavily on body postures and facial expressions as well as vocalizations and olfactory communication.

Canine Vocalizations

Canine vocalizations have many types and uses. Vocalizations include barking, whining, and growling. Dogs will use barking to alert others to intruders, be they friendly or dangerous. Dogs will bark to go outside or to be let into the house. Dogs will also bark to threaten and in this case the bark is often combined with a growl. Owners who listen will say that their dog has many different types of barks depending on the situation, ranging from fierce to happy and all types in between. Dogs will also use whining as a form of communication. Whines of puppies signal some sort of distress to the mother, hunger, cold or danger. Whines and whimpers are vocalizations of need or subordination. Whining has persisted past puppyhood in the domestic dog because it serves a function. In the domestic dog whines and whimpers persist because they often get results such as affection, being let inside, being fed from the table. Another vocalization that dogs use is the growl. A growl is a vocalization that signifies antagonistic intent and shouldn't be taken lightly. Growls can be varied in the same manner as a bark. Although there are no happy growls, the intensity of the threat can vary with the growl going from quiet and barely audible to loud, rumbling and combined with a bark.

Olfactory Communication

Dogs use olfactory or scent communication. Because the dogs' sense of smell is so acute, odors can be used to give a dog an enormous amount of information. By far the most common way that dogs communicate with odor is using urine to mark territory. By sniffing the urine of another dog, a dog can determine the sex of that individual, and whether or not there is any breeding potential. 2 Urine is used to mark territory and to tell others who was where when.

Body postures and facial expressions

Dogs will use facial and body postures to indicate their intent in certain situations, whether it is aggressive or submissive. It is the misunderstanding of these postures that often leads to problems between owner and pet. Dogs will use assertive and submissive postures to relay information about how they are going to behave. They will use dominant postures and aggressive threats to try and "win" in certain situations. What type of body postures signifies aggressive intent? The first thing that a dog will do to counter an aggressive or perceived threat is to stare at the offender. 3 The stare will be direct and hard. If the offender wishes to end the encounter at that level, all they may need to do is to look away and often the encounter will end. But if the intruder continues to stare back and begins to come closer then the dog is faced with a decision of how to proceed. Often times the dog may reinforce the threat by beginning to snarl3. The actual visualization of this behavior may be difficult depending on the conformation of the dog, whether the eyes are covered and if the lips are long and pendulous. The aggressor will increase the threat usually by changing the position of the lips, retracting them back and exposing more teeth. This facial expression may also be accompanied by growling. The facial expression may also signify intent by the position of the lips, opening of the eyes and the ear position3. The body posture will become more erect and the ears may go forward again depending on the breed and its conformation. The tail could be held high, above horizontal and slowly wagging side to side. There may even be piloerection of the hairs along the scruff of the back.3,2 This is usually a dog that is intending to stand it ground. Certainly a dog can go through all of these postures very quickly and escalate to a bite.

Another important component in determining how far this aggressive threat will go is the distance to the animal. Most animals including dogs have a critical distance. When a threat is far enough away the response will be lessened or non-existent. However if the threat were to come closer, the sequence just discussed would come into play. Remember that all of these aggressive facial and body postures need not be present to the dog to escalate the aggression to a bite. Distance and persistence of the offender enter into the response. If the dog decides to attack, the ears will go back, the head and neck get lower and the dog shifts weight backward to prepare for attack.

What does the submissive dog look like? Submissive behavior can be active or passive. An actively submissive dog will approach without eye contact (eyes averted), the body and head may be lowered and the tail is low, but wagging and may be between the legs.2 The dog may also show a submissive grin.1 Passive submission is shown by lateral recumbency, elevation of the uppermost hind limb and tucked tail1. This posture is designed in dog language to appease and thus avoid aggression.

However, in fearful situations dogs can be submissive and defensive at the same time. This can occur in dogs of any rank and whether the behavior is accompanied by aggression depends on the motivation, early experiences, genetics and environment. When fearful dogs are defensively aggressive, the aggression usually has components of submission incorporated1. This dog may have eye contact, but the eyes are open wide, the ears may be pulled back against the head and instead of standing straight and tall, this dog may have its head and tail slightly lowered. Often their weight is shifted backwards. This type of dog will often bite if approached too closely or reached for1.

Along with dominant postures there are also dominant gestures. These include " standing over" or placing ones body or pressure on the back of another dog. Petting on top of the head can be considered a dominant gesture by some dogs. Submissive gestures include licking or fondling around the muzzle and under the chin and neck. When a dog whines or whimpers, this is also considered submissive. When confronted with a dominant person or dog, the submissive animal will often crouch down and urinate.

There is also another body posture of dogs that is not related to aggression or submission and that is the play bow. Dog will assume this posture; the front end down and the back end up with the tail wagging. This is saying "Come play with me!" 4 The goal is to signal that the behavior that follows is not intended to harm the individual.

However, when we think about communication, it would be inappropriate not to consider first the context in which it takes place and the roles of the participants. Often people assume that what takes place between two dogs and between dogs and humans is about dominance. This is probably an oversimplification of the interaction. If you actually analyze interactions between dogs, what is often happening is about deference and avoiding conflict. Conflict and fighting in group living is counterproductive. Therefore, it is in the best interest of the group for disputes to be settled amicably without overt aggression and possible harm. Deference can be very subtle with small changes in facial expression and/or body postures enough to change the reaction of another individual. However, between humans and dogs these subtle signals may be misinterpreted or missed resulting in miscommunication.

Many popular texts on dogs speak about and describe submissiveness training exercises and postures for humans to use with their dogs. Over the years, most veterinary behaviorists have come to believe that these are not necessarily helpful and possibly harmful when attempting to establish relationships and communicate with companion dogs. First and foremost, if you look at them in the context of canid relationships many of the proposed techniques and manipulations are not really ethologically relevant to dogs. Dogs do not elevate other dogs and although they can place other dogs in recumbency often what occurs is that the subordinated dog ASSUMES a subordinate body position. This is vastly different from being placed in one. In addition, while a dog may place their mouth on the scruff of another dog, when that takes place usually fighting or an extreme circumstance occurs, not for minor violations. Additionally these are very ritualized behaviors that usually do not result in injury. Finally, submission between dogs is generally subtle and quickly given, just a quick shift of eye or body position may suffice. Humans often miss this and demand full-blown submissive displays. When they insist upon these, they run the risk of causing fear and then a defensive a reaction that usually gets labeled as "dominance". It is commonly believed among behaviorists that much of the aggression displayed by dogs toward humans often has underlying fearful and anxiety based components. These probably come about because of miscommunication.

Another area of miscommunication between humans and companion animals is delayed punishment. Owners mistakenly believe that they can punish their pet 10 minutes to several hours after misbehavior and the pet understands. They base this assumption on two areas of misunderstanding. The first is the animal's presenting submissive body posture. As mentioned earlier, this posture is designed to appease, not to "apologize". Second, unless you reward or punish within 15 seconds, what you are rewarding or punishing is the behavior that is occurring at the time. Because companion animals do not have language how can they "chain" backwards and know that the owner is angry over an event that occurred in the past? All that they can really understand is that the owner is angry.

So how are humans to communicate with dogs in a way that allows them to have the leader role while encouraging their pet to defer? First, owners need to understand what deference is. It is not necessarily a full blown submissive display. Deference could merely be a change in eye contact, a looking away. Once the dog has deferred this way, to the dog, the encounter is over. If the owner continues to yell, punish or physically reprimand the dog may defend itself. Owners can establish their leadership and control by actually controlling what the dog does and how it receives things from humans. This can be as simple as requiring compliance with a command prior to receiving what the dog wants such as exiting the house, getting fed, or being petted. In addition, owners can require calm, quiet behaviors to receive petting or treats. Neck shakes and alpha rollovers do not have a place in training and interacting with dogs on a daily basis. Owners need to understand the context of the behavior and establish relationships based on the communicative behaviors displayed by their dog and counter those humanely and in a method the dog can understand.


1.  Simpson, BS, Canine Communication, In: Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, Vol. 27:3, 1997. Pp.445-464.

2.  Dunbar, I, Dog Behavior (Neptune,NJ: TFH Publications Inc., 1979) 70.

3.  Nott, HMR. Social Behavior of the dog. In: Thorn. C (Ed) The Waltham book of Dog and Cat Behavior. Oxford, Pergamon Press. 1992, pp 97-114

4.  Hart, B.L., The Behavior of Domestic Animals (New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1985) 58.

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