What Your Dog Wants You to Know

When you first acquire your dog, you are like a new parent. You have to ask the experts — in this case, the breeder, vet, and trainer — for advice in making sure you are doing a proper job of bringing up baby. Things became significantly easier as your dog matures, but at each stage of its life, you need to adapt to changes.

Puppyhood is the most demanding time, with its frequent feedings, housetraining, socialization, and teaching good manners as you learn the ropes of responsible ownership. Midlife is the frosting on the cake, as you enjoy a bright and active pal whose needs are predictable. Your dog now only need two meals a day, and you have the potty schedule down pat. In its senior years, more care is required. You need to adjust its diet and provide adequate exercise, enriching its environment to make these precious years enjoyable and challenging. In all your years together, you and your dog will both learn a lot.

One of the greatest things about sharing your life with a dog is the communication skills you accumulate on this journey. As your relationship progresses, you will better understand what your dog wants and needs, and your dog will know what pleases and displeases you as well.

Your dog reads a lot into your body language, touch, and tone of voice. You'll be amazed at how it seems to know when you need its snuggling, comforting presence when you're feeling down in the dumps.

A dog communicates in two ways, through vocalization and body language. It can't talk like a person, but it produces quite a repertoire of sounds. You will learn to interpret your dog's different barks, from the sharp announcement that someone is at the door to the matter-of-fact way it lets you know when it's time to go potty. It also barks to get your attention when it wants a treat or some playtime. Snarling and growling can range from playing, “I'm the baddest dog on the block” to, “Consider this a warning. I feel threatened and I might bite.” Whimpering can tell you it's in pain or feeling neglected. Howling signals heartbreak and distress. Some small dogs with short muzzles like the Peke and pug also have their own amazing variety of snorts, snuffles, grunts, and snores.

As your relationship with your dog evolves, you will become adept at reading its canine body language. Here are some universal ways in which dogs communicate physically:

  • Tail wagging: Wagging, of course, is the most common expression of a happy dog. It says, “Boy, am I glad to see you!” The faster that tail wags, the happier your dog. A wagging tail is often accompanied by prancing around and an attempt to entice you to play. But not all tail wagging is happy behavior. Some dogs wag their tails when they are agitated, frightened, or not too sure what's going on. Their tails may wag slowly, from side to side, when they are tense.

  • Tail carriage: A tail carried high as you go for a walk is a statement of confidence and contentment. A tail tucked between the legs tells you the dog is anxious or apprehensive. If its head is lowered as well, it may be feeling guilty or ashamed. The shorter the tail, the less it can convey, but there is nothing as endearing as the happy twitch of a stumpy little tail. Some dogs wag their entire hind end when they are feeling very happy.

  • Play bowing: This pose, with the rear in the air and the front end bowed as your dog's bright eyes entice you, means “Let's play!” It is both submissive and aggressive, but it's all in fun. Healthy dogs remain playful throughout all stages of their lives. That's probably because humans react positively to their puppy-like behavior. Some dogs also raise a front paw to invite play.

  • Rolling over: This is a submissive posture. When a dog wants to acknowledge another canine's dominance, this is its way of saying, “You're the boss.” Sometimes a dog does this to tell you how happy and safe it feels. Sometimes it's just looking for a belly rub.

  • Ears up: The dog is on alert. During training, a dog watching you attentively with its ears up is ready to learn.

  • Ears back: This can be a sign of either submission or aggression. If the eyes are half-closed or blinking, the tail hanging low and wagging slowly, and the dog's paw is raised, it is submissive. If the tail is down and tensed and the dog is in a crouched position with its hackles raised and teeth exposed, the signal is aggression and dominance.

  • In your face: A dog standing stock-still as it faces another dog or person and making direct eye contact is asserting its dominance and may be getting ready to attack, especially if it “stands tall” on its tiptoes and has its hackles raised and tail bushed out. Growling and “grinning,” lips curled and teeth bared, are also warning signals.

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