Curious to know how dogs ‘talk’ to each other? There are four key ways that dogs communicate and understanding what dog expressions mean is helpful to understanding how your pup might be feeling.
We’ve all been there: You’re walking your dog and you see another dog coming. All of a sudden, your totally chill pup’s ears go back, their tail goes up, and a barking frenzy ensues. This can be stressful and embarrassing to a dog parent, but it also raises the important question of what exactly is going on between dogs in those moments.
To develop an understanding of what’s going on when dogs interact, it’s helpful to know how dogs communicate with each other. Dogs communicate with each other through how they present their bodies (visual communication), how and what they touch (tactile communication), the sounds they make (auditory / acoustic communication), and the smells that they generate (olfactory communication). Whereas vocal and tactile communication are important parts of how dogs communicate with humans, body postures and scent cues are more significant in dog-to-dog communications.
The most immediate way dogs communicate with each other is through the visual cues associated with direct eye contact and increasing or decreasing their size. When a dog increases their size by holding their tail vertically or raising the head, neck and ears, they are communicating confidence, alertness, or the perception of threat. Appeasement signals like avoiding eye contact or making themselves smaller are often used to reduce a perceived threat, and ‘showing the belly’ is a classic means of illustrating submission to another dog.
Tactile communication between dogs is often shorter in duration than other forms of communication, but still highly meaningful. As a way of reinforcing social bonds with other dogs, resting close (or on) another dog or grooming another dog helps develop social cohesion. In more contentious interactions, tactile communication may take the form of humping or putting paws on the back of a more submissive dog.
Auditory / acoustic communication
While barking is something we humans often observe occurring between dogs, a growing body of research suggests it is our human presence that might actually inspire the barking. In communities of feral and stray dogs who live independently of humans, barking and other auditory signals decrease significantly which suggests that barking is better understood as a means of dogs communicating with humans than with other dogs. Other behaviors that might not at first seem like they are rooted in sound, like scent marking and ground-scratching, can also have auditory signals that express dominance of or presence in a given area to other dogs.
It’s well known that dogs have an incredible sense of smell, so it may be surprising to discover that olfactory communication happens to be one of the least studied areas of dog-to-dog communication. What research that does exist tells us that direct actions like sniffing each other offers dogs the opportunity to subconsciously exchange essential data about (among other things) gender and emotion. Similarly, scent marking is an extremely efficient indirect means of olfactory communication that allows dogs to obtain information about other dogs without the presence of those other dogs while also indicating territory ownership.
So the next time your dog passes another pup on the street, go ahead and let them sniff a bit. Good communication is what makes the world go round, even the dog world.