Decoding pet sign language: what your dog wants to say ?

Dog is considered as one of the best companion animals and known as human’s best and faithful friend. Dogs if cared properly develop very strong attachment to its master. A person’s attachment with his dog is based on the principles of care and dependency. To fulfill this need of dogs his owner has to understand it. Dogs have anatomical and physiological equipment similar to man to facilitate the experience of sensations and the range of sensory perceptions and associated emotions are no less than humans; but problem arises due to difference in communication skills. When we think of communication, we usually think of the verbal form of communication but for the dogs, vocal communication is the least significant; body signals and odors are the primary ones. Generally, message conveyed by dogs plays important role in there tie up with their owners.

The common communication methods used by dogs are:

Postural communication

Dogs used a wide variety of genetically programmed body postures to communicate, which includes distance reducing or submission signs, distance increasing or aggressive signs and play submission. Distance reducing or submissive signs are the signs that tend to decrease a threat or encourage an approach by another individual. Showing submission helps in stop or attenuates the aggression, punishment by a more dominant individual. It represents an effort by a lower ranking animal to attain a harmonic social integration and assumes that the higher ranking individual will respond appropriately.

These submissions can be broadly classified as: passive, active and play submission. Generally, in the passive submission the dog will tends to lower the ears back against the neck and the head will be lowered with the neck lowered and extended forward or twisted sideways. The tongue can flick in and out as more dominant individual approaches with tail is held lower, often between the legs. Whereas the active submissions are seen more often than passive and is derived from the pattern the puppies initially use’s when begging for milk and food from the mother. The most distinguish feature of active submission is the approach of the dog to a person and is usually accompanied by a head and tail held high as dog bounds forward, tail wagging is common and once the dog had reached its goal, it will show one or more of passive submission like diverted eyes, lowered head, immobile response to touch etc.

On the other hand, distance increasing or dominant aggressive signals include the body postures that appears to increase the size of an individual by optical illusion are meant to convey a go away message. Direct eye contact is generally the first message with eyelids wide open and is recognized and used by almost all the dogs fallowed by the mouth showing with lips are pulled back at the corners and eventually retracted into a snarl. The head, neck and ear are elevated during the initial phases of distance increasing communication. The dog will create the illusion of increasing size the weight is first shifted forward to indicate a strong position then the legs and toes are stiffened to maximize their length. The tall is held vertically or arched over the back, where it can be flagged in either a slow, deliberate motion. The relative height of the tail gives a good indication of the level of confidence of dog. Ultimately the distance increasing signals can escalate until they approach an actual attack.

Vocal communication

Unlike its relative wolf which uses only four to nine types of vocalization, dogs have variety of sounds for communication. This may be due to the evolution after their domestication and close relationship with humans. This vocal communication includes

  • Bark: Barking, the most common sound which the lay man recognizes. Generally, puppies start barking at an age of 2-4 weeks showing a response to their dam’s growl. Different pitches indicate different situations, with higher tones more for greetings and play and lower tones for threat’s. barks are most commonly associated with greetings, play solicitation, alarm, hunting, tracking, herding, vocal alerting, defense, threats, care seeking, distress, contact seeking and group vocalization. The more the owners are around their dogs the better they recognize the tone of bark and the situation that prompt it.

  • Growl: Generally, dog owners usually associate growling with an aggressive behavior of defense or threat, but it’s usually more complex than it seems; for example, growling can occur as greeting, perhaps to reinforce dominance relationship. Play bouts between dogs or between dogs and humans contain play growls in addition to the more traditional signals of play.

  • Grunt: In new born puppies grunt usually associated with care seeking, contact or greeting. Whereas in adults it appears in animal which is being stroked or held by its owner.

  • Hiss: Sound produced when air is being forced through the nose. It is generally seen as a primitive predecessor of threat sound.

  • Howl: The most annoying vocalization of canines and like its relative wolf, dogs also used to produce this type of sound. Wolves used howl for long distance communication as if one isolated individual is lost from its pack the howl is used by isolated individual for a long distance vocalization and the member of a pack may join in a chorus of howl’s as a group vocalization. Thus, a group howling may be a show of pack affinity, a display of strength and in modern dog these traits may be associated with howling may still be expressed.

  • Mew: Also called as click sound usually made by distressed neonates when they are in pain or seeking maternal or littermate contact’s.

  • Pant: Instead of a vocalization of larynx it is just a movement of air from oro-pharynx and is generally provoked with play solicitation.

  • Puffing: The sound results when air is forced through a slight opened mouth. Its origin is mechanical rather than from the vocal fold and is used as assign of lowest intensity aggressive vocalization.

  • Scream: Produced by both adults and puppies when they are distressed, in pain or showing submission. The sounds are of great intensity, non cyclic and long in duration.

  • Tooth snap: Sound produced when teeth hits its opposite partners after rapid movement of jaws and is associated with defense and threat behavior’s

  • Whine or whimper: Mainly results due to distress and the situation that appears to provoke whine and whimpers are care seeking, contact seeking, defense, distress, greeting, group vocalization, pain and submission.

  • Yelp: Generally, puppies start’s yelping at an age of 14-20 days which is generally associated with whine.

Marking communication

Scent marking has been defined as urinating, defecating or rubbing certain body are while oriented towards specific object and is used to mark a particular object, territory or individual. In dogs scent marking occurs through two primary means that is urination or by anal sac secretion. Whereas other scent marking like those of feces, salivation, sebaceous gland secretion and those released by scraping can be used for communication.


1,2, Scientist, Division of Medicine, ICAR-Indian Veterinary Research Institute, Izatnagar, Bareilly-243 122 (UP)