Reading the signs

Dogs have a particular way of reading the world and their place in it. Their vision, hearing, taste, scent and touch are different to ours. These senses allow them to explore and understand what's going on around them. Let's take a closer look before exploring the world of canine communications!


Vision - Dogs have amazing peripheral vision. On average humans register 180 degree field but dogs have an astounding 250 degrees. Their long distance vision is superior to their short vision. They are less likely to see straight ahead than laterally. Dogs generally have a poor colour perception and will see red, green, orange, yellow and blues as colours in contrast to white and grey but will not see these colours as uniquely different. Night vision is much better than ours.


Hearing - Did you know that dogs can capture sound with each ear independently? Not only do they have an extraordinary ability to hear high pitched sounds but they have four times the hearing capacity of us. 


Taste - Most dogs tastebuds are gathered at the tip of their tongue. Taste and smell go hand in hand and provide dogs with all the information they need to assess their feed. They can distinguish between bitter, salty, sour and sweet.


Touch - Dogs Whiskers allow pups to navigate around an object and serves to protect them from any external impact whilst also providing them with information about potential opponent. 


Scent - The most dominant of senses, dogs have approximately 220 million receptors compared to 5 million in humans. Dogs use scent to assess numerous things from identifying potential mates to assessing how their owner might be feeling. They can distinguish easily between different people and are even capable of identifying some illnesses and medical conditions in humans.


So now we know a little bit about how dogs use their senses to place themselves in the world, how do they communicate with us?


We know that scent is a powerful communication tool between dogs and they use it to identify things like status, both sexual and emotional, ownership, confidence  and age. In communicating with us,  they use their voice and body. They will verbalise by whining or crying if they want us to know they are distressed or fearful, they growl when they feel dominant or confident, they snarl when they are less confident but want to send a warning, they bark for a host of reasons so assessing the situation is important in understanding what the bark means. It might be a warning but it also might be that they are excited or they simply want attention. Howling can mean distress but it can also be a sign of celebration. Yelping will mean pain, fright and distress whilst moaning could mean pleasure or complacency. Getting to know your pup will help you work out exactly what their voice is telling you. It's always about context!


The dog will go out of its way to give you information. We just need to be focused and willing to read the signs. Dogs tend to read patterns and events rather than rely on 'hearing' us. Here are some signs to look out for;


The Ears

A dog is generally relaxed/attentive when the ears are up. The mouth will be closed and the stare friendly.

A dog is generally fearful /aggressive when the ears are back.  The mouth will be open with some teeth showing and the stare more threatening.

A dog is generally dominant /aggressive when the ears are forward. The mouth will be open with most teeth showing. The stare is very threatening.

A dog is generally fearful/submissive when the ears are back. The mouth will be closed and drawn back and the stare diverted.


Remember, staring at a dog may be interpreted as a threat. Diverting your gaze will de-escalate  any threat. The smaller your eyes the better. 


The Tail

When the tail is up, the dog is confident, aroused, dominant and threatening.

When the tail is up and stiff, aggression is present.

When the tail is raised, horizontal but not stiff, the dog is interested. 

When the tail is tucked, the dog is fearful, intimidated and submissive.1


Remember, it is important to 'read' the dog as a whole. Consider body language, voice, the situation the dog is in as well as the general temperament of the dog. As always there are lots of great resources online. 


1. National Dog Trainers Federation, Australia, 22214VIC Certificate 3 in Dog Behaviour and Training, VU20918 Investigate and assess canine behaviour.Pg 4 - 20


All opinions, advice and observations are my own and based on my work as a teacher, facilitator, community development manager and owner and friend to Pixie, Sulu, Woody, Max and Daphne over a lifetime.