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Translating Puppy Talk
Understanding the things dogs “say”
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A basic truth about humans and dogs: We live in overlapping but not identical sensory worlds. To a pup, we are sort of like the Brobdingnagians of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, extra-large beings whose ways just don’t all make perfect sense. That’s a hard position to be in, because your dog’s world is controlled by you. Making matters more difficult still, a dog can’t explain to you what you’re failing to understand about him. While we live in a world of language, dogs communicate via a variety of other means.

Thus, it’s important that you learn to understand your puppy, and understand what he’s “saying” to you, as you call the shots. The better you understand how he experiences his world, the less likely you’ll be to become frustrated or angry (and perhaps treat your charge unfairly). And, ultimately, the better and stronger the bond between the two of you will be. Here are 35 actions, with explanations that will help you translate what he’s “saying” to you.

1. Moves away when you pet his head. How are you doing the petting? A lot of people are taught that the way to pet a dog is to keep patting the top of his head. But a dog perceives that action as a signal of dominance, not affection. It also plain just doesn’t feel good. Dogs prefer to be stroked, particularly on the side of the face, under the chin, or on the front of the chest. They also like having their rumps scratched.

2. Circles the mat before going to sleep. This is an ethologic vestige. Dogs in the wild flattened the grass by circling around it a few times before settling down. They were creating a safe and comfortable nest. Today, dogs are acting out a primordial sequence that was genetically encoded many thousands of years ago and passed down from generation to generation.

3. Barks at the mailman no matter how well acquainted the two are. Your pup probably thinks he’s exerting some power by getting the mail carrier to leave. He does leave soon after the dog starts barking, doesn’t he?

4. Grunts. A grunt from a puppy is a communication of pleasure. Sought-after warmth or communion has been attained.

5. Whines. A puppy whines if he is cold, hungry or separated from those he feels he needs near him. Put a warm towel over him, feed him or pay him attention, and the whining will probably stop.

6. Blinks. That’s what a dog does when he is thinking hard. If you say “Down” to get him to lie down and he blinks before doing so, he is thinking, “Do I have to?”

7. Yawns. A dog may yawn if he’s tired, but more generally, it’s an indicator of stress. With yawning, the dog is trying to displace the stress, or inner conflict, with a safe, neutral behavior. Humans do the same thing when they find themselves in a situation of conflict that causes stress—not yawn necessarily, but do something to cope until the unpleasant situation passes. Let’s say you’re in a hurry and you reach a red light. You want to be there, but you have to be here, both because that’s the safe thing to do and because someone else, the police, will enforce the behavior that causes the stress: staying still until the light turns green. So what do you do?

You groom yourself in the rearview mirror, or you look at the driver in the car next to you. Neither of these actions is directly related to what’s pressing on your mind, but engaging in them is better than doing nothing while you’re stuck in the state of conflict between what you want to do and what you must do despite your desires. That’s pretty much akin to a dog’s yawning when he’s not tired.

8. Licks his lips. This is a sign of nervousness, anxiety and submission. People do it, too.

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Submitted by small dogs | April 8 2010 |

love this article. will certainly save me a lot of frustration from now understanding what my dogs are trying to tell me. will definitely share this at my blog.

Submitted by Australian shepherd | June 6 2012 |

This furthermore prooves that my puppy is needy....

Submitted by Bex | April 8 2014 |

There is a reason Aussies are known as the velcro dogs. Lol my Aussie is mixed with Rottweiler and boy do both personalities show. Needy or not we wouldn't have em any other way right?

Submitted by Anonymous | October 21 2012 |

I feel like this article is focusing far too much on an outdated concept of "dominance" - a puppy that climbs on a couch is probably not trying to assert his dominance, he just wants to be where the people are (not to mention that it's more comfortable up there). The information on calming signals is good though.

Submitted by Nikki | March 31 2013 |

Why does my dog like to be "swaddled" like an infant? He whines for me, I'll wrap him in a blanket and he will go right to sleep. So spoiled.

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