We all absolutely love our dogs, but sometimes, as much as we like to think we can talk to them, it’s not always easy to understand our furry friends. Expert dog behaviourist Mat Ward, who’s been working with and studying dogs for over 25 years, teaches us how a dog’s brain really works. From the meaning of a bark to the wagging of a tail, here’s how you can speak dog a little better.
The Tale Tells a Tale
A dog’s tail reveals so much about their emotional state and intentions. Here’s the low-down on what your dog’s tail is telling you.
The suprising truth
A waggy tail means a happy dog, right? Nope, not necessarily. It just means the dog is aroused – and arousal can be driven by different emotions. You need to take account of what the rest of your dog’s body is doing in order to read the meaning in the wag.
Yes, your dog could be brimming with happy excitement, but the wag could instead indicate anything from annoyed frustration to adrenaline-fuelled worry – or any combo of these emotions! The quicker a dog wags its tail, the more intense their feelings.
The exception is the ‘helicopter tail’ or ‘propeller wag’ – an enthusiastic rotating tail and bum waggle – which normally means a happy dog!
Above or below the line? Another key indicator of how your dog is feeling is where they are holding their tail. A tail that points just downwards compared to the line of the spine tends to mean a relaxed dog. The higher your dog raises their tail above this point, the higher their arousal or confidence. The lower the tail, the more worried or unconfident they are.
Each dog has their own tail accent. Some dogs tend to hold their tail higher, some lower. This might be their personality shining through, but it can also be down to their breed. For example, spitz breeds (like Alaskan malamutes) tend to hold their tails very high, while sighthounds (like whippets) are often low-riders!
The Meaning of Woof
Your dog can be very vocal at times – barking, growling, howling and whining. What does all that doggy chat mean?
Think of your dog’s bark as a shout that could mean any number of things: an excited whoop; a ‘get-off-my-property’ threat; or a frustrated ‘Come on Mum, throw that ball!’ The key to understanding your dog’s bark is the context – what’s going on, what they might want and how they might be feeling.
The actual sound is also a clue. A low-pitched, deep bark tends to show that a dog means business; a higher-pitched bark often means that they are feeling low in confidence or desperately wanting to engage socially. And the more barks in a row there are, the more worked up a dog is likely to be. Let’s take a look at the different types of bark, and what they mean…
A guttural growl tends to be a warning to give a dog space. It’s an important part of doggy communication that says ‘Stop doing that or there’ll be trouble.’ A dog might use a growl when they are stressed about grooming and wanting it to stop, or when they don’t want their food to be taken, or out of frustration at being held back from doing something exciting.
It’s not all serious, though! Dogs often growl during play – for example, during an enthusiastic game of tug – and this is normally nothing to worry about. In these situations, your dog is probably saying “Ooh yeah, sooooo fun!”
* Be aware that some dogs who are motivated to guard resources could bite you if you attempt to remove something important from them.
Usually, a whine or a whimper says a dog is seeking something. They may want attention, food, to be let outside, or for you to come back.
Intensity matters! The frequency and intensity of a whine tend to indicate how important your dog’s desire is to them. If they really want to leave the vet clinic, feel very worried when left alone, or get super excited about a walk their whine will escalate… even to the point it metamorphoses into a bark or a howl!
Howling is often to do with social connection. Dogs frequently howl when they’re not coping well with being alone, essentially saying ‘Please come back!’ Dogs may also use howls territorally to say ‘I’m here – this is my area’
Howls are contagious! The sound of other dogs or even people howling is hard for some dogs to resist!
Signs That Your Dog Needs Help
Your dog does not want to experience fear or anxiety. Knowing your dog’s stress signs can help you to help them!
Fear may come in a shout – or a whisper…
Sometimes dogs are so clearly stressed they ‘shout’ it loudly enough that even us humans understand. A dog with a lowered head, body and tail, pinned ears and weight rearwards is clearly frightened.
However, are you aware of some of the more subtle signs your dog may be anxious or fearful? If you can identify when your dog is struggling to cope, you’ll be better able to help them. Here are some of the common signs to look out for…
Keen to learn more about our furry friends?
Woof! You’re halfway there to speaking fluent dog. To become fully pooch-lingual, and to learn more about how to better understand your dog, make sure you get your paws on Mat Ward’s new book ‘What Dogs Want‘, available for pre-order now for just £11.69!
Mat Ward is a dog behaviourist who champions reward-based training and has helped thousands of pets and owners improve their wellbeing over the past two decades. His skills were tested to the limit when he took on the challenge of teaching a rescue dog to fly a plane for the TV show Dogs Might Fly. Mat lives in New Zealand with his wife, children, two cats and two dogs.
Check out Mat’s Me & My Pet interview, where he talks to us about his gorgeous doggys, his job as a dog behaviourist, his book and more!