I used to look at Smokey and think, ‘If you were a little smarter you could tell me what you were thinking,’ and he’d look at me like he was saying, ‘If you were a little smarter, I wouldn’t have to.” ~ Fred Jungclaus
Your dog is talking. Are you listening?
How many different ways do our dogs talk to us?
Dogs can bark and beg, whimper and whine, right? Some howl. Some even do an impressive Chewbacca impersonation.
But what about the ways they talk WITHOUT using their voice?
Beyond Verbal Communication
Humans have written and spoken language, so we tend to think of communication as verbal.
But dogs primarily communicate through body language. They only rarely resort to using their voice.
Scientists in England wanted to better understand how much dogs are communicating with us through body language, and more specifically, what they are trying to tell us when they do.
What they found had them using words like “impressive,” “remarkable,” and “skilled”—and even comparing what dogs are doing to how human babies and great apes develop language.
For the study (Cross-species referential signalling events in domestic dogs, Canis familiaris), they reviewed hundreds of videos of dogs interacting with their humans. Once they categorized all the behaviors they saw, they came up with 47 distinct gestures. Nineteen of those met all the criteria they were looking for, in that the dogs were purposely (not accidentally) trying to get their person’s attention using an intentional and repeatable body movement.
They then worked out what each of those 19 gestures typically mean. The most common meanings were:
- Pet me/scratch me
- Feed me/give me water
- Open the door
- Play with me/get my toy
What Is Your Dog Trying to Say?
I’ve put all the gestures and possible meanings in a printable sheet below for you.
Remember that what each gesture means can vary widely and is totally dependent on you and your dog. This list is based on the total numbers that the researchers found, but what’s more important here is recognizing when your dog is using one of these communication methods and understanding what he is asking for.
Here’s what I find fascinating about all of this: when I reviewed this list, I realized how much I take this “language” for granted. It’s easy to look at a dog rolling over on his back for a stomach rub and say, “That’s just what dogs do!” But in fact, your dog is doing something pretty remarkable, something that almost no other animals on Earth are capable of—communicating with a species outside of their own.
So to truly appreciate the effort your dog puts in to communicating with you, and to better understand what he’s wanting to say, try going through this list and spotting as many signals as you can. Approach it like a scavenger hunt! How many of these gestures can you recognize, what additional gestures can you add, and what does each one mean when your dog uses it?
You and Your Dog Create Your Own Language
In the study, the most common gesture was the head turn, where a dog makes eye contact with his person, then turns his head toward what he wants. The head turn could be used to mean a lot of different things, depending on if the dog turns to look at the door (open the door), his bowl (feed me), the toy box (play with me) or something else entirely.
Tyler uses this all the time, such as when he wants to go outside (open the door) or when it’s time for his treat (combo of open the cupboard door/feed me).
Lily and Georgia will use this when they want to go to bed for the night, looking at me and then turning to look up the stairs toward the bedroom. When they do that I always say “go to bed!” as if I’m giving them permission, but I never really realized the extent to which they truly were asking for permission and I was giving it to them. When they do this now I’ll have a greater appreciation for just how much we communicate.
Duke, sadly, does not use the head turn now that he is blind, but he does use the paw hover when he wants me to hurry up with dinner, as well as paw rest (pet me), jump (his version of play with me) and roll over (pet me). Lately, I think he’s started a variation of the nose gesture. Instead of his nose, he has been pressing his forehead against my cheek and resting there for a bit (swoon).
You and your dog will likely develop your own unique signals, too. My dogs do some of the gestures on the list with different meanings (such as flick toy, jump and front paws on—I really question the conclusions the researchers reached on those). Some dogs might combine one or more of these into one meaning. Or if you have a lot of people in your house, chances are great that your dog has developed even more gestures than are on this list. Remember that there were initially 47 gestures identified, but only 19 met all the criteria for the study. And this list doesn’t even include what dogs can communicate to us using eye contact, facial expressions and vocal expressions!
I’d love to hear about what you find! What new gestures could you and your dog add to this list? Are there gestures that you were misunderstanding or taking for granted? Does this change your awareness of your dog’s behaviors and communication skills in any way?
Comment below and let’s see how we can get to know our best friends better.