Dogs are intelligent. They can understand our emotions by just looking at how we move, smell, and sound. They can even remember a few words or names. They learn to associate these with a particular meaning — e.g., “Sit!” “Stand.” “Want to go for a walk?” — and respond or react accordingly.
If dogs are this smart with people, you can imagine how well they “read” other dogs as well. But what about communicating with other dogs? Can dogs talk to each other?
What dog “talk” is like
Yes, in a way, dogs do talk to one another.
However, compared to humans or more intelligent animals (like whales, dolphins, elephants, or parrots), dogs have a relatively limited range of vocalizations. So instead of communicating with an intricate system of sounds, dogs use a combination of vocalizations and physical movement.
Depending on which breed he belongs to, your dog is capable of making the following sounds.
We all know what a dog bark sounds like. Depending on the situation, a dog’s bark can vary in terms of delivery; there can be differences in the rate of barks made, the pitch, or how loud or strong it is. Those differences can communicate a lot of emotions to another dog.
Note: Some dog breeds rarely bark or can’t bark because their vocal cords differ from other dogs (examples: the Saluki and the Shiba Inu).
1.2 Yelping or wailing
This is usually a sign of extreme pain or distress. Yelps and wails are loud, so it’s the dog’s way of protesting or indicating to other dogs that it’s panicking or in pain. Note: Dog breeds that don’t or can’t bark make sounds that resemble a yelp or a high-pitched wail instead. If you have one of these dogs, you’ll have to learn to hear the difference between a regular yelp and a sign of distress.
This high-pitched moaning or sighing can indicate several things. It may mean the dog is begging for something (from another dog or a human) and he is unsure if he has permission to have what he wants. It could mean that the dog is in pain but isn’t sure if he can complain outright (by yelping or wailing). Or he could be feeling overwhelmed with excitement or emotions that he can only express himself by whining (e.g., when being reunited with a long-lost master or playmate).
This is a defensive or aggressive sound, sometimes made with matching hostile facial expressions (i.e., eyes large and unblinking; teeth bared). Aimed at another dog, it usually means, “You are not welcome / you are infringing on my territory / you are an enemy!” Like barks, growls can mean other things, depending on the situation. (Sometimes dogs will growl because they are terrified.)
Like wolves, most dogs can howl. Howling is a kind of bonding-with-the-pack or social activity for dogs, as well as a means for them to announce their presence to others. When they hear other dogs howl or other animals and humans making what sounds like howling to their ears, dogs will begin to howl as well.
Hunters of old would breed dogs to help chase prey and keep it cornered in one place (keeping it “at bay”). Then the dogs would make a huge, full-throated sound — called “baying” — that’s like a cross between a howl and a bark, and can be heard over long distances.
Hunting with dogs is a practice that has almost completely disappeared now. But some dogs (like the Beagle, Basset Hound, and other old hunting breeds) still retain the ability to make that sound. These dogs will bay by instinct if they start chasing something they perceive as “prey” or an intruder (e.g., a passing cat or squirrel). Baying here serves as a call to other dogs and humans to join the chase.
2. Physical movements
The rest of a dog’s “language” is expressed in physical, non-verbal ways.
2.1 Facial expressions
A dog’s face isn’t as expressive as a human’s. Nevertheless, a dog will still make use of his face to communicate what he wants or feels (to other dogs or to you!). So if you’ve been around dogs a lot of times, these facial expressions will be familiar to you:
Happy or relaxed: “soft” or sleepy eyes, ears focused front but relaxed, mouth hanging open, breath panting normal or quiet.
Afraid or anxious: Head still, eyes wide and fixed on a particular spot (with dilated pupils), increased panting, jaw shut or tense, ears turned back or down. Sometimes the dog will avoid direct eye contact with the object or creature he is afraid of.
Angry or aggressive: Unblinking stare, ears up and/or forward, mouth closed and tense or parted to show teeth.
2.2 Body language or behavior
A dog’s facial expressions are complemented by the rest of his body movements. This means a large percent of your dog’s body movement is an integral part of his “language.” (He isn’t just moving about or scratching himself for some random reason!) Here are a few notable examples.
Frequent shaking or scratching
This is the canine equivalent of nervous fidgeting. When a dog is feeling anxious, he will shake his head and/or body (similar to how a dog shakes off excess water from his wet fur) lots of times. Sometimes he’ll also scratch himself even when there’s nothing itchy (e.g., flea or insect bites) for him to scratch at.
A dog will behave this way when he has to be around someone or something that he feels nervous or anxious about. This can be another dog (i.e., a rival) or a stranger.
The way a dog moves or positions his head reveals a lot about what he feels, especially when he’s interacting with other dogs.
Whenever a dog holds his head and neck high, he’s interested or feeling aggressive towards whatever dog, creature, or thing he’s looking at. But if he lowers his head (except when he’s sniffing or licking at something), he’s lost his interest.
If a dog drops his neck and head down towards the ground (especially when his ears are folded down or backward), he is showing submission towards the other dog or the person before him. If he keeps his head down between his paws while lying flat on the ground (either with his ears folded backward or his eyes sporting a sad or disinterested look), he could be depressed.
Play bow: When a dog wants to play with another dog or person, he won’t just wag his tail, run around, or bark and pant excitedly. He’ll repeatedly do what’s called a “play bow.” The dog lowers his upper chest, head, and forelimbs while holding his wagging tail and behind up high.
Pawing: A dog may also playfully swat the other dog’s face repeatedly to signal that he wants to play. It also tells the other dog that he trusts him.
Light biting: This is the canine equivalent of rough play or tickling.
What this means for you
So be observant. Listen to what your dog is “saying” and watch how he behaves around you or other members of your home. Your dog may surprise you with what he says!