The Language of the Dog



        Both sets of dogs up here are communicating to each other.   Can you tell what they are saying?  If not, read on!


     Dogs have a language all their own.  It is not like those used by humans, who tend to be more verbal and less about body language. Dogs have so many non-verbal cues, in addition to the various vocalizations they use. They are experts at noticing and reading body language in each other and in us.  I have spent all my life watching canines interact, and find their communications endlessly fascinating!  Even after all these years, I frequently learn new things from observing dogs. 

      I think one of the most important things we as dog owners can do is learn how our dogs communicate. So many people think of their dogs as "human" or "children", often calling them "fur kids" and other names.  Well, it's fine to love your dogs as much as you would your human kids, but dogs are NOT human nor do they view the world as such.  That is not a bad thing, but if people view them as humans in fur suits, it does a great disservice to this wonderful species.  It also sets up the relationship for a lot of frustration and even false expectations.  As we learn how to better understand our canine friends, we can also communicate better with them. Think how frustrating it must be for a dog to be treated like a human because no matter how hard he tries, he can not be a human.  Many people attribute human emotions or motivations to dogs, such as spite, jealousy and such.  How many times have you heard a person say "my dog did that out of spite" or something similar?  Those dogs are misunderstood by their owners, who  may have the best of intentions but lack insight.  This misunderstaning can lead to all kinds of things, including an owner punishing a dog for a normal dog behavior, and even being frustrated with the dog.  A dog will sense this and will be stressed, which often causes more "bad" behavior, and the cycle will continue.  Also, it can lead to not being able to accurately meet your dog's needs as a DOG and come up with training and manage that accurately address each situation.  When you know your dog well as a DOG, you can more totally meet his needs.  And I should note, I am not saying dogs don't have emotions that may be quite similar to our own (love, fear, and so on) but often the MOTIVATIONS for many of their behaviors will not be the same of a human in the same situation. That is a key difference.  They also perceive the world differently than humans, and various things may have more or less value to a dog than to do to us. 

     Once you learn how to read your dog, and understand how differently he views the world, it can open up a whole new world to you.  It will definitely deepen both the relationship you have with your dog, and also your ability to communicate with him and understand what he is trying to tell you.  You will both gain a new respect for each other. 

   I think dogs are amazing creatures, as they are able to fit in our human world even when their owners are not well versed in canine communication.   I think it's a testament to their adaptability, and ability to put up with US!  I don't think there is another species on earth that can relate to humans as deeply as the dog. 

   Something else to consider is HOW dogs communicate. They use a wider range of body language than people, and a lot less vocalizations. Even so, they do have a range of noises they  make when "talking" with each other.  These would include barks, whines, grunts, growls, howls and other noises.  These are just a small part of what dogs use to communicate however.  Unlike humans who rely on a complex spoken language, dogs can say all kinds of things without uttering a sound. The positions of their lips, ears, tails and bodies can speak volumes to other dogs, and to people who understand canine communication.  They can also use various expressions with their eyes to tell other dogs how they feel. I tried to show quite a few of those things on some of the pages on this subject, which are listed below. 

      I find that after decades of spending countless hours with wolves and dogs, reading them is so second nature to me that I often feel I know what they are doing to do before they do.  It didn't happen over night but only after such close, prolonged contact and thousands of hours spent just observing them interacting with each other. 

      I remember once when I was doing a lecture at Wolf Park, in the wolf enclosure.  Two wolves were walking slowly along the fence line, toward each other. One was the alpha male, one was a lower ranking male.  As they passed, the lower ranking male flicked an ear back, which was his way of deferring to the alpha. It was subtle and fast. I pointed it out to the crowd sitting outside the fence, and I am sure they all missed it.  Canines have so many minute, subtle cues especially in their facial expressions, that one could miss them without paying close attention.  I think some people think the dominant wolves constantly run around physically dominating other wolves, but nothing could be further from the truth. It is a waste of energy when a more subtle gesture can work, and same can be said of lower ranking animals who want to defer to their leaders. 

   Another fun story involves a wolf that was the alpha male for many years. His name was Chinook, and to put it nicely he had a temper.  His yearling nickname was the Brat Prince and he was known for his noisy, violent temper tantrums, which could be directed at other wolves or the people he knew.  His very wise, experienced handlers (Pat Goodmann and Monty Sloan) learned some very good techniques for working with this wolf and over the years, the wolf and the people worked out some good cut off signals.  Chinook did like to be scratched and petted, but at times he got over stimulated and needed people to stop.  In his youth he didn't know how to communicate that in a nice way.   The people noticed that when Chinook got stressed and was ready to snap at someone, he would lump or bunch up the muscles under his whisker bed, on the front sides of his muzzle.  If a person was petting him and saw that happen, they knew to stop and all was well.  If ignored, Chinook would snap at them.  The other thing he learned to do was nibble groom himself (where a canine nibbles with it's front teeth, as if itching or removing debris from the coat.)  That was a cue we learned to respect and took it as the wolf's signal he was done interacting with people. As he learned we would respect that, he could lay at the feet of a circle of people and not be worried at being touched when he didn't want to be.   All of this was so deeply insightful on both sides and I still get goose bumps when I realize how profound it is to understand a wolf that way, and have his trust to tell us such things.

  I learned so much from the wolves I lived with for all those years, and of course Pat and Monty who are what people these days would call "wolf whisperers!"  I use all that I learned in those many years of working with wolves and people who knew them well, in working with my dogs today. 

   I am adding a number of pages that will help to broaden your understanding of the language of the dog.  I will add to this page too, but wanted to get something on here right away. 

   The pages you may want to read next include:

Canine Social Behavior

Canine Social Behavior 2

Calming Signals

Help, My Dog is Growling

Training Your Aussie

     Check back as I hope to add a lot more on this subject, which is one that is very dear to my heart!



 This is a GREAT article about temperament and how it works.  It is about German Shepherd Dogs but the principles apply to all dogs, and since Aussies are also herding dogs, it's even more close for them.  I really encourage anyone wanting to understand temperament and why it is genetic, not "how they are raised" to ready this. 





     "For the Mighty One has done great things for me; and holy is His Name."  

            Luke 1:49