How do dogs communicate with each other?

When our dogs meet another of their own species, how does each know what the other is thinking? Why do some dogs bark and lunge when they meet other dogs, or try to run away? Why might our dogs want to play with some dogs and not others?

Dogs communicate in many ways, and so quickly, that we must learn these signals if we are to understand how they interact.

Dogs greet one another with a familiar pattern, circling one another and sniffing each others muzzle, then genital area. Ideally this is a calm interaction as the dogs learn about one another through their sense of smell. It might seem odd to us humans, who tend to use what we can see to gather information.

Dogs and other animals have a special ‘scent’ organ known as the Jacobson’s or ‘Vomeronasal’ organ, within their nasal cavity. This allows them to analyse chemicals as they sniff, detecting odours which provide them with information about male or female, breeding availability as well as identification. This subtle and highly sophisticated ability gives dogs ways to communicate in ways that we humans can only imagine.

Group of dogs going for a walk  

Body signals are the next important communication method. Traditionally, a dog with a wagging tail was always supposed to be friendly, but this is far from the truth. We learn to look at the whole of the dog’s body. A dog can become very tense and wag its tail high over its back, a sign the dog may be alert or defensive (this may vary for dogs with tightly-curled tails, such as Pugs). Dogs ears move forward, showing signs of interest or agitation, or they may become pinned tightly back against the dog’s head if the dog is worried or stressed. Their eyes may stare hard when concerned or defensive, or, gaze softly and expressively when relaxed. A snarling mouth, with lips drawn back and teeth exposed, can mean that the dog is very upset and may bite next.

Barking is another signal, but barks can vary in tone and intensity. Take a look at what your dog is barking for. Who are they barking at, when, and how? This will give you clues as to what they are trying to communicate. Is it excitement at playing with the other dog, or frustration that they can’t reach them? The bark pattern will sound quite different. Dogs also vocalise with plenty of other grunts, yaps and howling. Each has its own specific intent.

It takes two (or more dogs) to have a ‘conversation’, so do look at the other dog’s body language, too. You will see one dog respond to the other, back and forth. A relaxed interaction involves a lot of ‘give and take’ body conversation, with friendly, familiar dogs taking turns to advance, retreat, offer play signals such as front paws pouncing and side to side prancing.

An undesirable interaction is one we must learn; dogs that rush in a straight line towards others can be seen as confrontational and they may not engage in gentle interaction. Any kind of force; pinning without allowing the other dog to escape, chasing without taking turns, are examples of a one-sided conversation from a dog that is simply not listening to the other. This can be harmful.

Above all, teach yourself the specific signals your dog gives in a variety of situations, so that you can be sure you know what he, or she, is truly ‘saying’.

This information can also help us to understand how our dog may see us too.

A goup of dogs at a park
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