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Dogs ‘speak’ one language only, made up of many sounds and body signals. It’s easy for us to misunderstand what our dogs are trying to tell us, because sounds and body signals can have different meanings. So, we shouldn't look only at the tail, or ears, or become worried just because the dog growled. We need to look at the entire dog and what is happening before coming to a conclusion. For example, a tail wag is not always friendly, and a growl is not always a threat.
The sounds and body language dogs use serve to show, amongst other things, friendliness, threat, aggression, play, and stress. And to understand the intended message, these sounds and signals need to be interpreted according to the situation the dog finds himself in.
Learn to interpret the most common sounds and signals dogs use and you’ll be able to act appropriately when your own puppy is interacting with another dog or person.
The most common sounds dogs make are: barking, growling, grunting, howling, clicking, screaming, tooth-snapping, yelping, whining and whimpering.
Screaming means distress, fear, or pain. Grunting and clicking mean relief from discomfort and are associated with physical contact, such as patting or stroking. Whining, yelping and whimpering are mainly distress or excitement sounds, commonly associated with greeting, pain, hunger, thirst, and seeking attention. Tooth-snapping may be used in play situations, in warning or defence, in anticipation, or when the dog is generally excited. Many people ask why dogs howl, howling communicates acute distress and serves to reunite the dog with other dogs or people. Think of howling as a call.
The sounds dogs make have many meanings, but none cause as much confusion and misunderstanding as barking and growling. Barking is one of the sounds with the most meanings. It is associated with greeting, invitation to play, alarm, hunting, tracking, herding, alerting, defence, threat, asking for attention, asking for physical contact and distress. It also causes contradictory reactions in dog owners. Barking aimed at intruders or potential burglars serves as a deterrent and, therefore, provides you with a sense of security. Constant barking at anything that moves or at any uncommon sound, on the other hand, can become intensely irritating, to both you and your neighbours.
Growling also has different and contradictory meanings. It’s associated with threat, defence, greeting, and play bouts. It is often misunderstood by the owner, as he tends to believe growling is always a threat or display of aggression. For example, if during play the dog begins to growl, you may stop or even punish the dog for growling because you don't know it’s natural for dogs to growl while playing. So, don’t immediately think a barking and/or growling dog is acting aggressively; it’s important to look at the rest of the dog's body and at the context.
While communicating, dogs use their tails, ears, paws, qq hackles, lips, neck, entire head, face muscles, eyes, and mouth. They use their entire body. How these body parts are used will be discussed next, because it’s not just what body parts are moving that counts, but how they are moving.
For example, the way in which the tail is wagging may indicate a friendly approach, or a threat or intention to fight. The way in which the ears are positioned may indicate fear or playfulness. The way in which the lips are placed may indicate submission, or a threat. These are some of the reasons why – and I cannot stress this enough – it’s important to look at the whole dog. Never assume a tail wag means friendliness; never assume that showing teeth means aggression.
In short, dogs use their bodies to communicate different things. To understand them properly, it is paramount to understand what whole sets of body signals mean. Let's begin by looking at what play looks like.
Play comprises a series of body signals that are used in friendly interactions. It is through play with the mother, brothers and sisters, that a puppy first learns to communicate. Play with the mother and littermates teaches the puppy when and how to use appropriate sounds and body signals to resolve minor squabbles and avoid fighting. Continuing to play with other dogs, once the puppy joins his new family, helps him practice his communication skills. This is one of the reasons why it is important for your puppy to attend puppy classes or parties. The play bow (front end lowered to the ground, with rear end up) is a typical gesture of play invitation and a signal the dog has no intention of acting aggressively. In fact, many play bouts begin with one or both dogs going into the play bow. Should play become too rough or distressing for one of the dogs, he will tend to use appeasement signals (signals that serve to calm down both dogs involved in play) or cut-off signals (signals that indicate the dog wants to end the play bout, but without fighting the other dog).
Dogs greet one another before beginning to play. Let's say they are assessing one another for friendliness and gathering information about one another. They’re likely to begin by sniffing one another's muzzle, maybe even lick one another's lips or corners of the mouth, and then proceed to sniffing each other’s anal and genital areas. It is at this point, after they’ve gathered information, that they’ll decide to begin playing or go their separate ways. But it is also at this point that a fight may happen. If you see that either your dog's or the other dog's hair begins to stand on end while they're sniffing one another, the tail goes right up and becomes still, and one of the dogs stares hard at the other, be cautious and move away with your dog.