Leonard is a former teacher and principal who has also been a writer for the past two decades. Writing and animals are his true loves.
There can be little doubt that most dog owners love their pets a great deal. We are constantly taking care of their many needs, whatever they may be. From feeding them, going for walks, playing ball, taking them to be groomed, and having that ever so important cuddle time, the list is virtually endless. However, we certainly don’t begrudge this as dogs are our true loyal companions and irreplaceable members of the family. We will do whatever it takes to help keep them healthy and happy . . . just like we do with the rest of our loved ones. There is one distinct difference, however. Unlike the other members of the household, our dogs cannot actually tell us what they want or need in words. Human family members will not be overly shy about voicing their wants and needs to others. That is simply part of the normal communication process. Be that as it may . . . our dogs may not be at such a disadvantage as it first appears. In truth, words are certainly not always needed to convey a message. For instance, it is particularly easy to tell if someone in the family has had a bad day by reading their body language and expressions. A clenched jaw and intense red face will give away an angry person every single time. Shifting glances, excessive blinking, and relentless rubbing of hands together will certainly betray a nervous individual. We do not always have to communicate vocally and in words.
It can be argued that the exact same goes for our beloved dogs. They communicate with us daily through their body language and movements. If we learn to carefully observe and “read” them, we will begin to discover what our dogs are really trying to tell us. What follows are common body language traits and behaviors shown by dogs which will answer the question . . . what is my dog really trying to tell me?
1. It's All In the Eyes
“Eye contact is way more intimate than words can ever be.” —Faraaz Kazi
You can tell an awful lot about other people by looking into their eyes. It can reveal disinterest, anger, nervousness, and even intense attraction. Dogs will also communicate through their eyes. It is commonly thought that when a dog looks directly into your eyes, that it is a sign of love and affection. In some instances, this may certainly be the case, while in others it is the exact opposite. For instance, a dog who holds eye contact with you while having a tense expression is not typically looking for a kiss! Also, when a dog turns his head away but still looks at you, revealing the whites of their eyes, they are likely upset and can easily turn aggressive. This is commonly known as “whale eye.” It does not typically happen between a pet dog and their owner, but can certainly occur when visitors arrive.
Contrary to this, dogs which have regular looking, relaxed eyes are telling you that they are content and happy. If the eyes become very large and rounded, they are communicating to you that they are surprised and frightened. When you compare these characteristics to those of humans, it is really not that much different. By paying close attention, you should be able to determine what your dog is really trying to tell you by reading their eyes.
2. What Did You Say? Communicating With the Ears
There are certainly many different types of dog ears depending upon the breed. There are triangular ears, long floppy ones, and rounded ears such as those which belong to the French bulldog. While the actual variety of ears may look quite unique on dogs, the messages that they are delivering are very similar. For instance, a dog whose head goes to the side and ears prick up and stand at attention, is alert and curious. If the ears are slightly back, the dog is illustrating an attempt to be friendly. Conversely, a dog whose ears have gone flat and all the way back is displaying fear and submission. Essentially, the further back a dog’s ears are, the more afraid and fearful they are.
Personally, when I learned how to begin to read this simple canine body language, it became much easier to determine what my dog is really trying to tell me.
3. The Mouth: It Is Not Just for Eating!
Another area to watch on your pet for clues about what they are trying to tell you is their mouth. We are not referring to the spoken word, however. Once again, your pet will tell you a lot without speaking if you are informed about how to interpret their body language. For example, a happy dog will tend to have a relaxed and slightly open or closed mouth. If they are anxious or uptight, the mouth will be closed, but it will be very tight. A dog who retracts their lips to expose their front teeth is showing aggression. Lastly, a panting dog is simply trying to cool down by using this method to drive heat from their body. Dogs do not sweat the same way that we do and this is their cooling system. By watching your dog’s mouth, you can discover some very clear messages as to what they are actually trying to tell you.
4. A Tale From the Tail
When people see a dog with a wagging tail, they naturally assume that the animal is happy and friendly. While it is true that this is often the case, many times it is not. For instance, in a research study published in Current Biology, it was revealed that dogs wag their tails to the right when they have positive feelings and to the left when they are hesitant or fearful. In other words, a dog may be wagging their tale when they are happy or upset and aggressive. There have been many documented cases of dog bites occurring when people have approached a dog with a wagging tail which they assumed was friendly.
A dog can reveal many other emotions which they are feeling by their tail as well. When they are very scared or frightened, the tail will tuck in between the legs. A highly raised and stiff tail signals aggression and is a warning to stay clear. By learning to read the body language of dogs, such as moving tails, you can easily decipher what it is they are trying to tell you.
Behaviors and Movements
Up until this point, we have primarily concentrated upon “body parts” to determine what it is our dogs are trying to tell us. However, there are many other ways in which they communicate their messages to us as well. The following are various types of dog behaviors and movements which clearly convey messages from the pet to the owner.
1. Jumping Up On You
There are various opinions as to why a dog may be jumping up on you. Some people will tell you that they are attempting to assert dominance over you. Others will say that it is simply a display of affection and cry for attention. Essentially, they are both right. Canines are taught from birth to lick bits of food from their mother’s mouth. This mouth licking becomes a canine greeting similar to the way human beings may greet one another by shaking hands. When you arrive home from a busy day, your beloved pet is jumping up on you to lick your mouth and say “How you doing?” They are demanding attention and a whole lot of emotions are going through your dog’s brain at that moment. There can be little doubt, however, that they are telling you that they are very happy to see you and are demanding some time and attention. A very clear message if there ever was one!
How many times per day do you yawn? All humans do it. There are many theories which seek to explain why we yawn, such as being due to boredom or exhaustion, and even as a contagious response which is activated by the yawning behavior of others. When we consider our dogs, we are able to see many similarities between them and ourselves in this regard. It is true that your pet may yawn as a sign of simply being tired. You see this multiple times every single day when they wake up from a long nap. However, there is a great deal of research which suggests that dogs yawn as a response to mild stress. The actual yawning acts as a type of relief from the stress that is building up.
Interestingly, there is growing evidence which shows that yawning in dogs can actually be a type of “contagious yawning” which is ultimately displaying empathy towards their owners. In research by certified canine behavior consultant, Georgina Lees-Smith, she makes note of this point. According to Lee-smith, if a human yawn is followed up by a dog doing the same, it is a social connection and display of empathy towards the owner. Considering all of this, a yawning dog will certainly tell their owner how they really feel!
3. It’s All in the Bark
Personally, I have owned numerous dogs throughout my lifetime. There has always been a dog in my house. As such, getting to know how they express their wants and needs is critical. In addition to everything which has been presented up until this point, I have discovered that carefully listening to barking is a very obvious way of discovering what my dog is really trying to tell me. For instance, dogs produce a variety of sounds whether they be throaty barks, growls, yips, or whines. They all signify a need for something different and are communicating various messages. In his article, "What Are Dogs Trying to Say When They Bark?," Stanley Coren, a professor in canine psychology, supports such a point. He claims that barking dogs are giving different messages depending upon the pitch of the bark, the frequency of the barking, and the duration. A high pitch bark is friendly while a lower pitch bark or growl is a sign of aggression. Also, the longer the duration of barking shows a determined dog and the frequency reveals the level of excitement. In an article by popular dog behaviorist, Cesar Milan, he claims a barking dog is essentially trying to tell you he is either bored, spoiled, confused, or scared. By carefully listening to your pet, you can begin to determine what they are really trying to tell you.
4. Standing on Feet or Between the Legs
As has been shown, our dogs are always trying to communicate with us. Another way in which they do this is by sitting on our feet or between our legs. Any pet owner can be forgiven for thinking that this is peculiar, and sometimes annoying behavior. However, it is certainly another way our dog is trying to tell us something. It may be a case of dominance as the pet asserts itself over you. It could also be a possessive behavior in which the dog is showing others that you are his . . . so back off! Lastly, it could be due to separation anxiety or even the constant affection from a loving and cuddly pet. As in all cases, an owner needs to be observant and read all the clues which their dog is providing for them. Only then will they be able to determine what it is that they are really trying to tell them.
Undoubtedly, the most troublesome way our beloved dogs will seek to tell us something is by biting. This is certainly not the most common way they choose to express themselves, but it does happen. Just like everything which has been outlined up until this point, biting is another form of communication. There could actually be a number of reasons for this to happen. Personally, just over a year ago, my little Yorkie jumped off the bed and broke his leg. As I was trying to stabilize him, he was biting and chewing on my arm the entire time. The poor little guy was in pain and was letting me know it.
Dogs may also bite due to possessiveness over their owner or even a material item such as food or a bone. They are clearly telling those around them to stay clear! Also, a dog may bite due to fear. If they are scared or surprised, a good nip might be the result. Certainly, although not as common as the other behaviors, biting is another way your dog will tell you what they are feeling and trying to say.
All in all, the many ways our dogs will communicate with us has been clearly shown. From observing body language such as wagging tails to the motivation behind various behaviors like yawning and barking. It all has meaning. As humans, we just need to take the time to carefully observe and we will then be able to answer the question . . . what is my dog really trying to tell me?
How about you? Please contribute to our discussion:
Dog Body Language. What is your dog trying to tell you? Becky Striepe. Care2 Healthy Living
What is my dog trying to tell me. Susan Alexander. Modern Dog Magazine.
Dog Body Language. WebMD
Asymmetric tail-wagging responses by dogs to different emotive stimuli. A. Quaranta, M. Siniscalchi, G. Vallortigara. Current Biology.
My dog always jumps on me. Ozzie Foreman. Dog Owner Guide
Why do dogs yawn. Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell. PetMD
What are dogs trying to say when they bark? Stanley Coren Ph.D., F.R.S.C.
What your dog’s bark is telling you. Cesar Milan. Cesar’s Way.
Addie on May 18, 2020:
I have a 1 year old aussiedoodle and we have the closest bond i could wish for and because of that it seems like i always know how she feels or why she is acting that way! It makes me so happy to see when a dog and a human get along as well as me and my dog do too
Mya on February 09, 2020:
Maxine Dunne on June 08, 2019:
I have two female jack Russell's mother and daughter , they always got on and would play for hours and sleep together they were great together , but over the past two weeks they are fighting all the time they can't look at each other and it starts I don't no what to ? They are really hurting each other I have to keep them separated in different rooms which is very hard as I have to keep switching as I want to give the both of them my attention , will this pass or do I have to get a home for the pup who is 10 months old and my daughter's dog which she adores , I am getting so stressed with the situation as I constantly have to watch that I close doors and not let them see each other , have u any advice on how to solve this situation ?? Thank you
Dana Totten on July 26, 2018:
My dog Kema and I walk trails alot, whenever she refuses to lead or move,i have learned to not go any further as one day at the lake I walked back to her just when a bear came running down the mountain and into the lake! I would have been in it's path had I not learned to read my dogs behavior!
Maurice Barkley on May 05, 2018:
I'm sending my daughter a link to this. Her dog, Spike, is a big lovable mix who frequently visits. As I read I could visualize Spike's reaction to the points you made.
Ilene Goff Kaufmann on May 05, 2018:
Interesting article! I really enjoyed it.! I actually learned something new about when dogs yawn. Thank you Leonard!
Carrie Garvin on April 22, 2018:
I can relate to this article in so many ways. Oh my gosh the way our pups look at us when they want something. Like an alarm clock at 3 p.m. they rally to take their afternoon walk...
Our oldest rescue 12 yo dog, Bella, barks and barks. If we leave the room she barks. In the middle of the night she barks. Wish we could read her mind. Bad eye sight, old age, confused? Maybe all, but just comforting her makes her calm down. So sweet.
Larry W Fish from Raleigh on April 21, 2018:
I enjoyed this article. Dogs can tell us many things in their barks and their mannerisms. Dogs are actually very intelligent animals and the more we spend time with them the more we learn what they are trying to tell us.
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on November 11, 2017:
Yes, dogs without a doubt can tell you how they are feeling in very many ways. Funnily enough, they were saying on TV the other week that dogs have different facial expressions. I think that's true. You can certainly tell when they are happy or sad by their face. My dog is 14 now and I know how he is feeling by his face.