How to understand dog body language and barking

Do you speak dog? From tail-wagging to growling, our pets’ vocal and physical cues tell us a lot about what they’re thinking and feeling. We decode the messages behind some common canine behaviours (and explain why it’s not always what you might think!)

You don’t need a degree in canine linguistics to translate what your dog is trying to tell you. By paying attention to dog body language and vocalisations, you can get a good idea of what’s on their mind.

What does barking mean?

Dog barking probably started out as an alarm call, announcing to fellow pack members that someone was coming. It’s a misconception to assume that barking is a threat; it’s more of a fanfare or a ‘Halt! Who goes there?’. Over time, barking has evolved beyond being purely an alert and can also convey more subtle messages and emotions, such as attention-seeking, boredom, excitement or fear.

Common sounds owners might hear include a medium-pitch stutter-bark (‘Ah-ruff!’) saying ‘Let’s play!’. Less welcome is a single yelp or short, high-pitched bark – ‘Ouch!’ – or series of yelps in response to terror. Generally, a low-pitched bark conveys a more dominant or threatening stance, while a high pitch indicates the opposite: insecurity and fear.

Trust your instincts – research shows that people are generally good at reading whether dog vocalisations are positive (eg friendly, playful) or negative (fearful, aggressive). Read our guide to what your dog’s bark means to find out more.

Why do dogs jump up at us?

Dogs greet each other nose-to-nose and have a good old sniff, so naturally they want to do the same with us, even if that means leaping up to our level. Jumping up is often tolerated, and rewarded with attention, in small puppies, which only reinforces the behaviour. But it can become increasingly disruptive as they get bigger – so if you want to discourage jumping up, get into good habits as soon as possible.

Why do dogs wag their tails?

Tail wagging in dogs is often thought to be a sign of happiness and friendliness – but the truth is far more complex. A wag can be a greeting, but it can also signal high excitement, insecurity or even, in some cases, aggression.

A broad, swinging wag

This is the most relaxed posture – your dog is feeling pleased and ready to interact with you. There is some research to suggest that if your dog’s tail wags slightly more to their right, they are feeling more positive and receptive, while if the wag swings over to their left, they’re feeling more negative or anxious.

A small wag with a narrow swing

As you might expect, this is a more tentative way for dogs to make their presence felt – they may be feeling unsure of themselves. Similarly, if they’re wagging their tail but holding it lower than their natural, default tail position, this may be a submissive posture, to show they’re not a threat.

A fast wag with tail held high

This is generally a sign of excitement – something has caught your dog’s interest and they are on high alert.

A ‘vibrating’ tail

Tiny, very fast tail movements are a signal that your dog is poised to take action. If the tail is held very high, it may be a threat posture. Bear in mind, though, that different dog breeds have different tail postures – for example, Greyhounds naturally hold their tails lower than other breeds.

Why does your dog lick people?

There are many reasons why dogs lick – but if your dog is licking you a lot, it’s likely to be a bonding behaviour carried over from puppyhood. Puppies instinctively lick their mother’s mouth to encourage her to regurgitate food for them, and will often lick other dogs (and people) to greet or groom them.

Adult dogs tend to be less prolific lickers, but some retain this behaviour into adulthood – particularly if they’ve grown up enjoying a lot of fuss and stroking when they do lick us. So if your dog loves licking your face, it’s likely to be a sign of affection, and desire for your attention. Plus, they’re also tasting us! Our sweat, tiny particles of food on our skin and countless other tastes are enjoyable to our dogs, and provide them with information about what we’ve been up to.

If dogs are licking people, or themselves, obsessively, however, it’s worth getting them checked out for underlying health or behavioural issues.

Why do dogs put their tail between their legs?

This can be a sign of stress in dogs. A dog with their tail between their legs, trying to make themselves look smaller, is generally feeling anxious, fearful or insecure. They may be in need of reassurance, or want to be removed from a stressful situation.

Why do dogs look away from you?

Looking away doesn’t necessarily mean that dogs are not paying attention! If dogs feel uncomfortable or stressed, they will often avoid eye contact. In social situations, looking away is a non-confrontational gesture that is meant to diffuse any tension. A hard, prolonged stare, on the other hand, can signal a threat.

Why do dogs growl?

Dogs often progress from barking to growling if they perceive a threat. Growls aren’t invariably hostile, however. When a dog is happily playing, the growl is more high-pitched than a low, deep, genuinely angry growl. Body posture also highlights the difference: aggressive growls are accompanied by a stare or snarl, and the growling dog often remains stationary. If you’re worried about regular outbursts of aggression in your dog, do consider training to improve his social skills or seek advice from a behaviourist.

Why do dogs whine?

There are many reasons for whining, so the context is important. Dogs may whine to get your attention, or because they need or want something (like food or a walk). Some dogs whine with excitement during greetings. Others may whine to appease people or other dogs, by expressing submission. Whining can also be a sign that they are scared or anxious, and persistent whining can be a sign of pain in dogs , so do get it checked out if you’re worried.

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