Dog Communication


Listen to your Dog!
He may be trying to tell you something important!

Dogs are canids and humans are primates.  We do not have a common language to communicate with each other.  The only means of communication we can use are telepathic (through pictures in the mind) and body language and vocal sounds (through actions, sounds and gestures).  Most of us have lost the ability to communicate with our dogs telepathically since childhood.  This leaves body language as the only way they have of communicating with us.

I often give demonstrations on the use of service dogs for PAWS With A Cause, where I work as a field instructor and presenter.  I say that the dogs "alert" the owners, when they hear sounds they have been taught to respond to, or in the case of some seizure alert dogs, when they know the person is about to have a seizure.  The question I get from the audience is always "HOW does the dog communicate this to the owner?"  I usually explain by using the analogy of the television series, "Lassie."  Timmy was always falling in the well or something, and Lassie was forever having to go get someone to help.  If you've ever seen that "Timmy's in the well again" body language on a dog, there would be no question in your mind that the dog were trying to convey something important.  It's like the doggie version of "charades."


My friend Joanne has a seizure alert dog, Willie.  Willie is a Golden Retriever, and loves to be petted, and he adores Joanne, so he often performs the "Golden Paw" maneuver to get attention, or he'll try to thrust his head under her hand to get it stroked.  These are the same basic behaviors he performs to let her know she's going to have a seizure.  How does she know the difference?  The difference is very obvious to a "dog person."  The head nudging and pawing take on an "exclamation point," which gives it that "this is a message of an urgent nature" twist.

When dogs try to communicate something to us, they often do something they don't normally do.  For instance, if my dog, Karli, comes running into my office for no apparent reason and tries to crawl under my chair, I know that there is either something that scared her, like thunder, or a bear in the living room, or the other dogs are doing something that is "not allowed" and she is trying to establish an alibi, by being with me at the time the crime was perpetrated.  I can usually tell if it's thunder or a bear in the house by giving a quick listen.  Ruling out the first two, I realize that this particular action on her part means, very clearly, "I didn't do it mom... I didn't have any part in it.  It was all the other dogs' ideas and I wasn't even in the room at the time."  Whereupon I jump up and go out to find that Gator is trying to pull a pan with dinner leftovers off the top of the stove, or the puppy is chewing something she's not supposed to, or someone relieved themselves in the house.  It's pretty nice having a dog that acts as a "tattle tail."

Your dog has a repertoire of behaviors and vocalizations which are usually used in particular circumstances.  The dog may have one bark that means, "yippie, we're going to get something (dinner, taken for a walk, etc.)."  There is a completely different bark that means "the postman is here," and one that means "there's someone at the door."  There's one that means "I hear something unusual" and one that means, "let's play."  I'm sure that if you thought about it, you could identify a dozen or more different kinds of vocalizations that your dog makes.  Each one varies in tone, intensity, duration and volume.  Each one carries a different message.  Pay attention to what your dog is "telling" you.

I have a personal example of how listening to my dog's communication attempt saved our lives and our home.  I was in the office, working, as usual, when I heard Karli, in the kitchen, bark once.  Karli doesn't bark much at all, but the barks she gives are all identifiable.  This bark didn't have a meaning.  I stopped what I was doing and listened.  I thought, "That's queer."  She doesn't bark when she wants water, and that's not her "I see something out the back door" bark.  It was definitely not the "someone's here" bark, or the "give me my toy back" bark.  I thought, what could she be trying to tell me about in the kitchen?  Then, with horror, I realized that several minutes earlier I had left some garlic bread covered with cheese in the broiler of the oven.  I had forgotten all about it, distracted by my work (out of sight, out of mind!).  I ran to the kitchen and opened the oven door to find the cheese on fire, with flames shooting up into the electrical components at the top of the oven.  I hadn't smelled the smoke or anything, but Karli did, and she thought it was something she might want to mention.  This could have been a serious electrical fire, that could have destroyed the house, but instead it just became another embarrassing cooking lesson moment, thanks to Karli, and thanks to my habit of paying attention to my dog's attempts at communication.


Dogs have senses which are far more acute than ours.  I believe they can sense things that we, as primates, have no way of detecting.  It's interesting to read the stories about the dog heroes.  These dogs often find ways of communicating remarkable things to their owners. Fortunately, the owners listened.  One example was a Pit Bull Terrier on vacation with his owners in their Jeep.  The dog started doing the "Timmy's in the well" thing, and the owners couldn't figure out what was wrong.  In the dog's final attempt to get through to these people with "doggie charades", he jumped out of the back of the jeep and ran ahead and physically blocked the road and wouldn't let them go further.  They decided to go elsewhere to camp for the night, and turned their vehicle around.  As it turned out, the gorge where they were headed flooded that night.  A dam broke, if I remember right, and the valley was suddenly filled with rushing water which wiped away all of the people who had set up camp there for the night.

My message here is "Listen to your dog!"  A few years back, I read an article about some break-ins that were occurring in California.  They all took place during the night, in homes where people had dogs.  The dogs didn't alert the homeowner to the presence of the intruder in the middle of the night. This is probably due to the fact that when dogs bark at night, the owners usually just tell them to "shut up!"  When I was a teenager, I was vandalizing a friend's house (toilet papering) one night, when the people suddenly let their dog out.  The dog was saying, "Hey there's about a half a dozen vandals out here in our yard, hiding behind the cars and stuff!  Come quick!  Get the baseball bat!"  The owners just hollered "Shut up and get in here right now, you stupid dog!"  They did not recognize the increased amplitude and intensity of the dog's bark as anything out of the usual.  Bummer for them.

Probably the most subtle way dogs "communicate" with us, is when they have a physical ailment.  They may not intentionally "tell" you that something is wrong.  Dogs are pretty stoic, and sometimes endure amazing amounts of pain or discomfort, without letting on.  It may just be that they don't know how to tell you.  You have to use your own powers of observation.  Watch for stiffness in the dog's gait.  Watch for abnormal behavior, like licking or pawing a certain area of it's body repeatedly.  Watch for head shaking.  More than an occasional shake may indicate an ear problem.  Inactivity is a major indicator.  If your dog's activity level suddenly decreases, it could be indicating that he doesn't feel well.  It's hard to know what could be the cause, but it would be a good idea to keep your eye on the dog's stool, checking for parasites or foreign objects.  Go over his whole body feeling for any unusually warm areas, which might indicate a swelling or infection.  Check the pads of the feet (if they're hurt, he's not going to want to move around much).  Take a look at the anal sacs.  Dogs which regularly require grooming services probably get their anal sacs expunged at the groomer's.  If you bathe your dog at home, you may not realize that you should be checking his glands periodically.  If they become filled or impacted, it can become very uncomfortable for the dog.  You may see him playing "sleigh ride" (scooting his butt along the carpeting), to try to relieve the problem.

I challenge all of you to spend some extra time observing your dogs.  Watch what they do everyday.  Identify their normal array of behaviors and vocalizations.  The only way to determine when something is out of the ordinary is to know what is ordinary.  When ever your dog does anything out of the ordinary, you should investigate.  It could be an emergency.  He could be exercising the only means he knows how to communicate something important to you.  You need to be listening.

Article submitted by: © Dog Scouts of America (Biography & Additional Information)