Dogs are very social animals and are expert communicators with one another. Their evolution required this over the millennia to ensure the dog pack’s smooth functioning and successful hunting. We’d love to be able to speak and understand their language; however, our understanding of canine communication is stunningly limited. It’s often hard for us to know what another dog is saying to our dog, and so we may have no idea why our dog responds in a certain way – we call our dog’s behavior “unpredictable”. Our dog would disagree.
Although much of dog communication is undecipherable for us, we are aware of some of the methods dogs use to communicate. These include at least the following:
scent markers (including pheromones, urine, feces and anal gland secretions, and undoubtedly others we are unaware of);
vocalization (such as barking, whining, yelping, howling, growling, grumbling and general muttering);
visual signals (such as body postures; appearance of facial features such as eyes, ears, and mouth; appearance of other body features such as tail and hair coat),
Body movements (fast or slow; face-to-face or indirect; closeness of physical contact; use of the mouth for licking, snapping, or biting).
Of these, scent is probably the most important for communication between dogs. A large part of the canine brain is devoted to the sense of smell (compared to the miniscule portion of the human brain which has this function). The first thing dogs do when they meet peacefully is give each other a thorough sniffing over, and the most important and enjoyable part of most dog’s daily walk is sniffing everything possible, and maybe leaving behind a few scent marks of their own. Unfortunately, this major aspect of dog communication is probably the least understood by humans, since it is completely outside of our own experience. Who really knows what information dogs are picking up from sniffing one another? We can only guess.
What humans are good at is using our eyes. Although the very important world of scent communication of our dog is impenetrable to us at this point, our human visual skills allow us to develop an understanding of what we can see: our dog’s body language. And this is a rich language in itself. While we don’t yet have a full understanding of everything our dogs communicate visually, we probably have a pretty good grasp of the basics.