Canine (Dog) Communication


Play Bow ~ Darwin and Boudicca



October 16, 2010


Joyce Kesling, CDBC


Canine (Dog) Communication

What does communication mean?

Communication among animals is described as a transmission of information between one animal and another or between groups of animals with the intent to affect behavior.  Typically, communication takes place-using signals that may include verbal, tactile, odors (pheromones), facial expressions and body movements.  The communication exchange will usually have three components.  These components consist of 1.) the person sending the message, 2.) the person receiving the message and 3.) the communication signal.  The purpose of the message is to change the attitude, mood or behavior of the recipient.  The receivers’ response indicates whether the senders’ message, the function of the behavior has served its purpose.

Communication can take place between the same species (intraspecific) or with another species (interspecific).  In the case of dogs, Canis lupus familiaris communication is common in both situations.

The ethological definition according to Miklosi (2005) is the “…skill to change the behaviour of the other occurs always in a functional context like aggression, courtship, parental behaviour, cooperation etc.”  He further says, “[t]he evolution of dog-human communication depends on both changes in the communication system and changes in other behavior systems that have facilitatory effect on communication.”

Why do species communicate?

According to Lindsay (2000), “…expressive social behavior…exercises an important modulatory effect over emotion and mood.”  Communication is a behavior, says Horwitz (2001), having a “goal and function.”  Communication in higher organisms serves to “regulate social interaction” among members of the group with the purpose to facilitate “cooperative behavior,” according to Lindsay (2000), which is vital to the groups survival.

Wolves have developed complex ritualized communicative behaviors of “threat and appeasement signals” for sustaining “dominant-subordinate relations” among pack members (Lindsay, 2000).  Dogs in both intraspecific and interspecific relations, utilize some of these same behaviors with the purpose of increasing (agonistic) and decreasing (affiliative) social interaction.

What is the function or purpose?

Both agonistic and affiliative signals help regulate social behavior.  This social system includes complimentary and opposing drives of dominance and affection that serves to establish social status and preserve social unity.  Lindsay (2000) said, [m]any of these expressions are innately programmed and reciprocated without much voluntary control or deliberation” with some being “modified and organized by the influence of experience.”  According to Overall (2001), communication signals are “…used to confirm or reject information received from others” and serves the purpose of indicating one’s species, sex, sexual receptivity, status, and generally to “negotiate” social interactions.

How do dogs communicate?

According to “evolutionary scale,” higher-level animals tend to have developed complex sense organs providing more options to produce communication signals.  In the case of dogs, scent if highly developed and when comparing the brain area known as the olfactory bulbs, where scent is assimilated we find the dogs is “four times larger” than a humans.  Considering this fact, one can conclude the dog utilizes chemicals known as pheromones collected from the environment as its primary effort to communicate.  In addition, dogs are very effective in using vocalization, body postures and facial expressions in combination with scent to communicate their mood and attitude.

Why is communication between owner and companion dog so important?

Dogs through domestication have lost many “morphological [form and structure] and behavioral changes” affecting their ability to communicate using body and facial expressions (Lindsay, 2000).  According to Lindsay, these “…genetic alterations in the direction of relative immaturity or physical and behavioral paedomorphosis” can be included as one of the causes.  Paedomorphosis is neotony, which is the retention of juvenile features in an adult animal.

During the transformation from wolf to dog, the protodog lost many of its “…well defined agonistic rituals” that tended to promote social harmony or cooperation within a group.  Lindsay quotes Frank and Frank (1982) saying, “the wolf’s highly predictable dominance ritual has disintegrated into an assortment of independent behavioral fragments” and includes submissive signals, saying they have “lost much of their adaptive function…behavioral integrity and social significance” resulting in maladaptive applications.  Lindsay suggests these highly ritualized forms of communication have resulted in ambiguous signals promoting “social promiscuity” using “exaggerated care seeking” behavior and perpetuating “juvenile tolerance for varied and social contact.”  He describes the resulting behavior as “disjointed, confused, unpredictable, and fragmented” which would have confounding results on communication (Lindsay, 2000).

In addition, changes occurring within breeds have affected social behavior according to Lindsay (2000), by altering “developmental rates, behavioral thresholds” related to dominance and submission as well as “behavioral tendencies and temperament traits, social bonding and trainability.”  Bradshaw and Nott (1995) say, “…the degree of dependence on man is likely to have a major effect on any inherited aspects of social behavior…and that any inherited tendencies will be further modified by the circumstances under which each individual dog lives.”  They further state, “…there is no reason to assume that all domestic dogs should exhibit the same social repertoire” since artificial selection may have included several “races of wolves” and that each breed was molded to serve different purposes.

According to Lindsay (2000), Goodwin and colleagues (1997), study demonstrated the “…dog’s ability to communicate has gone through significant change as the result of domestication.  They further say, that even though some dogs lack an “effective agonistic signaling system” they have developed a “higher threshold” for aggression and may not require such a complex set of agonistic behavior to modulate the escalation of aggressive encounters.

Understanding how to communicate with dogs effectively is partly achieved by understanding how dogs developed under domestication, as well as how they adapted to their ever-changing environment.  Another reason why is partly founded in one’s acceptance or non-acceptance that “animals are endowed with a private experience or self-awareness comparable to our own” which presents a “moral crisis” according to Lindsay (2000) that “would revolutionize how we view and treat animals under our care.”  Temple Grandin (1995), suggests dogs are “…akin to the thinking style of artists or musicians” considering things in “…terms of their immediate sensory significance, relevance to the animal’s current motivation state and associated memories” added into the context or situation (Lindsay, 2000).

Summing this up, Lindsay (2000) says the following that “meaningful communication would appear to require an internally represented and empathetic experience of the other.

The subtle social communication occurring between humans and dogs seems to imply that there

exists a shared cognitive or empathetic substrate mediating, assessing, and evaluating mutual

intentions and meaning, as well as deliberating on different possible courses of action based on

parallel appraisals and emotions experienced by the affected communicators.

Understanding how our dogs communicate is essential to resolving behavior problems.  Communication lacking clear understanding can influence behavior, so establishing clear communication with our dogs should be considered an essential part of ownership.

How do we describe the dog’s communication behaviors?

Scent and marking behaviors

Marking communication includes urinating, defecating, or rubbing certain body parts while orientated toward specific objects (Beaver, 1999).  Marking behavior is stimulated by several sources that include familiar objects, both familiar and conspicuous and novel sources, such as urine marking by unfamiliar dogs or novel objects found in the environment.

The function is to mark objects, territory, an individual or itself.  The method of marking involves using anal sac secretions, urine, feces, saliva and sebaceous gland secretions and sometimes the earth in the case of scraping, but the primary source of scent communication comes from urine and anal sac secretions (Beaver, 1999).

The function of scent marking serves many purposes, including attracting sexual partners, maintaining and establishing territory limits, and sometimes for reassurance when in unknown areas.  They may also mark to indicate intolerance of another or to establish social ranking to other members of their species.  Marking may also occur during aggressive encounters and according to Beaver (1999), the “…marking animal is more likely to win the fight.”

Anal sac secretions are normally expressed during defecation and are usually expressed in the beginning and ending of defecation.  According to Beaver (1999) “[m]arked individual differences exist in the secretions properties, and dogs have some control over composition.”

Male dogs rather than females use urine marking more often.  However, female dogs do use urine to mark, usually when trying to attract mates, but will occasionally mark in areas where other dogs have previously marked.  Male dogs are stimulated to mark when meeting other dogs or by visual stimulation when another dog urinates.  Beaver (1999) says, female dogs “…seldom or never mark in the presence of a strange dog.”  Castration is not reliable in changing this behavior.

The raised leg posture is the most commonly used urination posture for male dogs; female dogs do occasionally use a raised leg posture using a slight variation, usually raising the hind leg and extending it slightly forward.  The male dog usually raises the hind leg extending it back to allow placement of the urine high on the selected vertical surface.

A feces marking is rare, but does occur.  The most common posture is the “hand stand” with the dog backing up to a vertical surface depositing feces onto the object, usually at nose level with the purpose of other dogs finding it.

The function of scent rubbing is not known, but two possible explanations are 1.) to cover the dog with the scent and 2.) place its scent on the object its rubbing.  The usual behavior begins with the dog “lowering the front half of the body and rubbing both sides of the neck and head over the odor,” it may then roll completely over rubbing the odor surface while moving back and forth across the surface (Beaver, 1999).

Scraping and scratching behavior can be observed after a dog urinates or defecates and the function is not entirely known.  Some speculate the intention is to leave both a visual and olfactory mark indicating the animal’s presence.

Pheromones and marking behavior may be more evident during female estrus with increased marking and roaming behavior.  The purpose is to advertise receptivity and is “…only attractive to sexually experienced dogs”, says Fogle (1990).  Pheromones influence the onset of sexual puberty in both males and females says Fogle, and the “ovulation and synchronization of estrous” in females and acts as an “aphrodisiac” stimulating “sex hormones” and increasing sex drive.  Pheromones also influence aggression, communicate social status, emotional and physiological states, age and genetic relatedness according to Fogle (1990).

Vocal Communication

Canine vocalization patterns begin during the neonatal stage of development and gradually develop until adulthood.  Young puppies’ first sounds consist of whines and yelps, called distress vocalizations, and function to reunite the pup with its mother.  These behaviors are replaced gradually with sounds associated with relief of stress or discomfort, contact comfort with siblings and mother and warmth and by 4 weeks of age the more “adult-like phase of vocal communication begins” according to Beaver (1999).

Vocalization behavior

Barking usually begins during the first 2-4 weeks, occurring in most cases during play-solicitation and not associated with aggression until after 8 weeks, and is usually in response to a growl associated with weaning from the mother.  The intent of the aggressive bark gradually increases and changes according to context and usually is associated with food defense or directed toward strange dogs.

The tone usually indicates the purpose with higher tones indicating excitability, play and greeting behavior and lower tones indicating threat or distancing behavior.  The function of barking includes greeting, play, alarm, hunting, tracking, herding, vocal alerting, defense, threat, care seeking, distress, contact seeking, and group vocalization and the specific function can be determined based on the contextual situation combined with the dog’s observed body language (Beaver, 1999).


  • Described as an acute distress call


  • Not always associated with threats and aggression
  • Can occur during greetings to reinforce dominance relationships
  • It may occur during play between conspecifics and intraspecifically
  • The behavior begins around 24 days of age


  • Puppy behavior –the function serves as a non-protest for greeting, care seeking and social contact
  • Adult behavior – usually associated with stroking or being held by owner


  • Air being forced through the nose – mechanical behavior
  • Suggested as primitive predecessor of threat sounds


  • Usually associated as a group vocalization within wolf packs
  • The function serves reuniting the pack, display of strength, spontaneous vocalization, and warning to strangers
  • Individual wolves can be identified by their individual and unique voice quality
  • These same functions may be evident in the modern dog

Mew or Click

  • Neonate sounds – is a distress vocalization and indicates pain or seeking maternal or sibling contact


  • Panting is not a vocalization but rather air movement across the oropharynx and associated with play behavior


  • Mechanical rather than vocal – air is forced through a slightly opened mouth causing the lip folds to move
  • Described as the lowest-intensity aggressive vocalization


  • Used by puppies and adults
  • A distress vocalization indicating pain or submission

Tooth Snap

  • Mechanical – coming from the mouth as the teeth hit each other as the mouth is closed quickly
  • Associated with play, defense and threat behavior

Whines and Whimpers

  • Usually always associated with distress
  • Used by both puppies and adults
  • Context is an important clue to their meanings
  • The most common situations eliciting these vocalizations are care seeking, contact seeking, defense, distress, greeting, group vocalizations, pain, play and submission and sex usually associated with being refused or separated from an estrous bitch, near a copulating pair, or near a whelping bitch.


  • Begins at 14-20 days and usually associated with the whine
  • Associated with greeting, play, distress, pain, submission, contact seeking and defense
  • Tone quality elicits different responses from conspecifics
  • Short with high frequency tends to increase motor activity as opposed to long and low frequency

Body postures

Dogs use their body to communicate visually, using the position of their ears, mouth, face, tail, hair, posture and position, functioning to identify their emotional state, but with variability among breeds, this is not always reliable.  Postural signals change according to the dogs’ emotion and mood flowing from one set of signals to another (Fogle, 1990).

Some of the dog’s visual behavior may resemble the following according to Fogle (1990).

  • Calm – ears and tail relaxed
  • Alert – ears and tail up
  • Aggressive – hackles up, tail up, rump up, lips pulled back
  • Increased aggression – snarl exposing teeth, straight stance
  • Frightened – ears flattened back, tail between legs
  • Fear – crouched with tail between legs
  • Abject submission – lying down, hind leg lifted, urinates
  • Greet – lick face, get regurgitated food or play bow

Beaver (1999) offers the following regarding visual body postures:

  • Genetically programmed and utilize a wide variety of postures
  • Dogs are experts at reading subtle changes
  • The ability of dogs to interpret human gestures has been experimentally confirmed
  • Signals include distance increasing, distance reducing and some mixed messages
  • Signals usually begin subtly and will rapidly intensify if necessary even skipping or mixing signals

Distance reducing or submissive signals – Beaver (1999)

  • Function to decrease threat and encourage approach behavior
  • Submission signals deters threats or punishment from higher ranking individuals
  • Submissive signals infer an effort to attain harmony in social integration and assumes higher ranking individuals respond appropriately
  • Divided into three broad categories – 1.) passive submission, 2.) active submission and 3.) play

Passive submission – Beaver (1999)

  • Postures adopted while being cleaned by their mother
  • Postures range from subtle to extreme
  • Simplest is avoiding direct eye contact
  • Lowering of the ears to more progressively submissive lowering the head, extended forward and could include twisting sideways
  • Tongue flicking may be observed – especially toward a more dominant individual
  • Submissive grin – horizontal lip retraction
  • Tail lowered, may be positioned between legs and may be wagged
  • Tail wagging is equated to human smiling and can be used as an index to establish the dogs emotional state
  • Tail wagging should be observed carefully to distinguish between submission and dominance
  • A submissive dog if touched freezes, standing completely still
  • General function is to reduce any sign of threat
  • Raised paw may signal defensive warding off or play soliciting behavior
  • A submissive dog may lie down and may including rolling over exposing its abdomen (inguinal region) – this is an extremely submissive behavior because exposing the abdomen could be fatal since there is not protective bone
  • The extremely submissive dog may even urinate
  • Mimic grin a facial expression sometimes confused with aggression but all body signals indicate submission – According to Beaver (1999), this is an inherited submissive behavior and is common in certain bloodlines in both purebred and mixed ancestry.
  • Pleasure face usually displayed while scratching or rolling over odiferous objects and is usually identified by lips horizontally retracted, ears lowered and eyelids half-closed

Active Submission – Beaver (1999)

  • Dogs use active submission more often than passive
  • Originally derived from puppy behavior including food begging, olfactory investigation and anogenital licking
  • This behavior is usually identified by approach behavior and includes signals such as holding the head and tail high and usually wagging indicating greeting a social superior or peer.  Once the dog reaches its goal, it will usually offer one of more passive submissive signals, including diverted eyes, lowering of the head, immobile response to touch, submissive urination and after acknowledgement the dog will begin to run around again
  • Greeting grin is associated with active submission usually resembling a human smile and only seen in human-dog interaction

Play behavior

During play a dogs body postures generally expresses no threat intended and staring generally considered a dominant facial expression is used without the “risk of confusion” according to Bradshaw and Nott (1995).  They further say the “…variety of visual communication methods shown in play” makes it difficult to describe since many are “characteristic of specific individuals.”  However, they say “more universal signals include the play bow, pawing with a front foot, twisting jumps and open mouthed panting” according to Beckoff (1977).

According to Beaver (1999), play behavior in puppies mimics adult behavior, but is offered in fragmented out of context form and includes various components of fighting, sexual and predatory behavior.  Dogs use specific body postures to solicit play, usually using the play bow.  This is easily recognized by the lowering of the front legs and raising the rear for a brief second and then returning to a standing position and is usually well recognized among dogs.  Using this posture is important to differentiate other behavior that may be associated during play such as aggression.  This behavior is rarely used other than during play and is usually apparent by 23 days of age.

Play behavior may also include a “raised forepaw” but context is important to interpretation.  In addition, a “play face” described by Beaver (1999) is an “intensification of the greeting grin” including erect and forward ears, panting, and wagging tail held high while signaling with a play bow.

It is suggested dogs are “less reliant” on visual communication due to artificial selection for “certain morphological characters” reducing the dogs ability to use specific structures for communication.  Dogs with droopy ears and docked tails may be at a disadvantage in signaling status than those with more wolf-like conformation.  In addition, dogs with long hair covering the eyes or inhibiting raising hackles may be unable to communicate using eye contact.  It’s been suggested that dogs rely more on olfactory rather than visual communication as a result (Bradshaw & Nott, 1995).

Distance-increasing signals – dominant and aggressive

Distant increasing signals function to “convey a ‘go away’ message” according to Beaver (1999).  The presentation of the dog’s body functions to create an illusion of being large, which is common in the animal kingdom.  In the beginning, one may observe visual signals such as piloerection with a forward stance shifting the weight toward the front legs and the ears, head and neck in a raised position.

When dogs feel or perceive threats, their first course of action involves a direct stare.  Among dogs, this is understood and avoided when the perceived threat breaks eye contact.  However, if the perceived threat continues eye contact and moves even closer a dog may be forced to escalate their threat behavior, perhaps adding lip retraction exposing their weapons (teeth) and may include growling in an attempt to thwart any further advance.  The ears on the aggressive dog are usually laid closely to the head as the action intensifies and its eyes are wide open.  The tail is held high and may either move slowly from side to side or seem to vibrate.  Beaver (1999) says, the “relative height of the tail gives a good indication of the level of confidence of the dog and…relative dominance between individual dogs.”

Remember dogs may combine signals or add additional signals as the need becomes necessary to ensure their message is received correctly.  Additional threat behaviors may include an “inhibited bite” or air snap and the actual bite may include “holding on” with or without shaking and is the “primary method of fighting” according to Beaver (1999) and the “…ultimate position in the fight is to achieve a firm grip on the ventral neck” which is also used in “bringing down prey.”

A dominant dog may use other signals which serve to “reinforce their relationship” with another dog such as resting its head or forelimb across the shoulders or grabbing the lower ranking dog by the muzzle using an inhibited bite (Beaver, 1999).

According to Lindsay (2000) these threat and appeasement behaviors serve to express the “moment-to-moment motivational changes and intentions” and the “effects of these signals on the receiver depend on the law of stimulus summation” which entails the adding together of elements (signals) unlike others in a combined attempt at quantifying the meaning of the threat or intent of the message.

The confident aggressive dog described by Lindsay says, “[d]uring a strong threat, dogs stand tall on their toes with hackles raised, ears erect, and tail held stiffly up.  The body is tense, with the eyes singularly focused on the target, holding it transfixed with a steady and unwavering gaze.”  As the threat continues, the dog will “retract the upper lip back and up to unsheathe the front incisors and large canines” and this “snarling action is often followed by a menacing low growl in immediate preparation for attack.”  A subordinate receiving this message reciprocates using “opposing submission displays or escalating reciprocal threat displays.”  In the case of submission, “the submission displays correspond in kind and quantity to the threat presented” and what Darwin termed “the principle of antithesis” according to Lindsay (2000).

Cutoff signals

The function of cutoff signals is to “postpone or break off agonistic conflict” according to Lindsay (2000).  He says, the cutoff behavior referred to by Tinbergen is a “compromise movement” rather than a “submissive gesture” used as an “opportunity to call a draw or walk away without further conflict and potential injury to the contestants.”

Cutoff signals usually indicate conflicting motivations and usually include “escape intentions…et-epimeletic intentions…or displacement activities” (Lindsay, 2000).  Lindsay (2000) uses an agonistic example saying, “…the cutoff is an expressive compromise between fighting and fleeing” saying further the “…apparent function of the cutoff movement is to suspend sensory contact momentarily with the arousing stimulus” attempting to avoid any further escalation toward a fight and avoid a “chase attack” if the animal chose to flee.  According to Lindsay, cutoff behavior has “relaxing effects” and appear to “…influence the opponent to reciprocate in kind” leading to mutual compromise rather than submission.

There seems to be some disagreement on some submissive gestures one in particular is exposing the neck to a potential adversary or opponent.  According to Lindsay, Lorenz (1966) argued, “both dogs and wolves present the neck as a submissive appeasement gesture” and “ritualized expression of nonaggression.”  He describes turning the neck away from an opponent leaves the most vulnerable part exposed since turning away yields the animal’s weapons.  However, he says Schenkel (1967) disagrees and says it’s the “submissive animal” whose teeth are closest to the exposed neck.  He suggests this is a taunt by the more dominant animal and is actually a challenge to the subordinate animal.  Fox (1969) according to Lindsay thinks it serves a “pacifying effect” functioning to “curtail the subordinate’s agonistic adventure” before things turn into a more serious contest.  The final argument, says Lindsay comes from Scott who “…claims he has never observed a subordinate dog expose its neck as an act of deference to a dominant aggressor” but rather assumes a “defensive and self-protective posture” that may include being “presented with a mouthful of snapping teeth.”

Our role in the communication

Understanding how we can effectively communicate and understand what dogs are conveying to us should be a priority of those working with dogs.  The roles of the participants and the context communication takes place needs understood.  Too many times thoughts of dominance are used to explain behavior, when in fact, most dog-dog and dog-human interaction is about “deference and avoiding conflict” according to Horwitz (2001).

Dogs are capable of giving subtle signs of deference so quickly it could be understood why the average dog owner might miss them.  In addition, much literature still exists suggesting “submissive training exercises and postures” that are more harmful to the human-canine relationship than useful.

In addition, delayed punishment seems universally misunderstood with owners believing punishment is still effective even though the behavior has taken place hours or minutes earlier.  What owners need to realize is the dog is unable to think back to earlier behavior, but rather the dog will understand the punishment applies to its present behavior at the time the punishment is delivered.

Finally, according to Horwitz (2001) the best way we can effectively communicate with our companion dogs is as follows:

  1. Owners need to understand what deference means, it can be as simple as diverted eye contact
  2. An owner can establish their leadership by controlling the dogs environment and how it receives reinforcement
  3. Owners can require calm quiet behavior before getting any reinforcement
  4. Owners need to understand the context of the dogs behavior and establish their relationship based on the dogs behavior and counter that behavior with appropriate communication


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Joyce D. Kesling, CDBC


The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated. Mahatma Gandhi 1869 – 1948

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