A yellow golden retriever dog barks at the camera at dog daycare.

Just like humans, dogs have needs and wants that they are compelled to express. Unlike humans, dogs are unable to speak any language, so they must rely on their body language and vocal expressions, such as barks, growls, and whines, to convey their needs.

These signals are a dog’s way of communicating what they are thinking and feeling, and they should be taken seriously.

Learning what our dogs are trying to tell us with their signals helps our dogs to feel comfortable in their environment, and so it is, therefore, often important to live safely with a pet. However, decoding what our dogs need from us can be tricky and often counterintuitive — for example, we associate tail wagging with happiness, but it can also mean the exact opposite. 

In any situation, it’s vital to be able to figure out what our dogs are trying to tell us, as in the long run, it can involve the difference between a happy, loving interaction and a dangerous one. 

Decoding Dog Barks

Apart from body language, another way that your dog communicates is through the sounds they make. Even though barking is most common, dogs have a variety of sounds they can make to convey whether they are feeling happy, fearful, excited, or threatened.

Some familiar canine sounds may include barking, howling, whining, snorting, and growling.


Dogs bark for a multitude of reasons. They may be trying to sound a warning, using it as an invitation, or even barking just because they are happy or excited.

Though there are many reasons why dogs may bark, we can listen to the tone of the bark to try to understand what they are trying to communicate. 

For instance, if your dog is feeling fearful, their bark may be repetitive and in a high-pitched tone, while if your dog is happy and feeling playful, they may use more of the common low and “gruff” sounds.

If your dog is excited for something, such as a treat, that bark may sound sharp and repetitive.

Dogs also have a specific way they bark if they are feeling threatened. A bark that sounds like a rumble or growl indicates that there is trouble and whatever is making your dog unhappy needs to back away, while an alert bark will sound staccato and high-pitched.

Learning to decode your dog’s bark can help you know what your dog is thinking and feeling at any given time and can help you care for your furry family member effectively.


Howling is another common sound that dogs make. Many dogs howl simply because they hear a passing siren or other high-pitched sounds.

Sometimes, dogs will even howl just because their owners are! Howling can be used as a means to locate others and can also be used as a call for attention if your dog is feeling ignored or anxious.


Whining generally denotes some anxiety. For instance, even if a dog is begging for table scraps, its whining is a signal that it is waiting in anticipation.

Dogs may also whine if they are experiencing pain or discomfort, so if your dog’s whining becomes more common or pronounced, you should seek the guidance and care of your veterinarian.

Snorts and Mumbles

This category encompasses many of the sounds that our dogs make when they want something from us or when they are feeling excited. There are many different noises that our dogs may use to indicate that they want attention or need something from us. 


Growling is primarily used as a way to deter a threat. If you hear your dog growling, especially if they have a history of aggressive behavior, that is your cue to remove your dog from the situation. 

However, growling isn’t always indicative of aggressive behavior. Puppies often growl when they are playing or roughhousing with other dogs, while older dogs may even growl at puppies in an effort to get them to behave.

If your dog is growling often in situations with new people or other dogs, you may want to consider working with an experienced dog trainer to help give your dog skills in order to feel safer and more confident in a variety of situations.

Dog Communication Through Body Language

Though dogs can communicate by making noises, such as growling, barking, or whining, dogs primarily express their feelings through their body language. Understanding what your dog means when it acts a certain way can help you better communicate with and care for your canine companion.


As discussed above, people generally associate tail-wagging with a happy dog. And, depending on the context, that can be true. 

However, tail wagging generally indicates that your dog is in a heightened emotional state. This could mean that your dog is excited because you just got home from being away, and they are happy to see you — but it could also mean that your dog is on alert, frustrated, or overstimulated, which can lead to some unwanted, aggressive behaviors. 

When trying to determine what your dog’s tail-wagging is trying to communicate, keep these points in mind:

  • Notice how the tail is wagging. A tail wag that is so exuberant that it moves your dog’s bottom is generally an indication that they are happy. However, if the tail is low or tucked between your dog’s legs, they are showing that they feel insecure, nervous, or afraid.
  • When a tail is extended and curved, that can mean that your dog is tense and ready to display offensive or defensive behaviors. If your dog is tense and on alert, you will want to be cautious when approaching.
  • The direction your dog wags their tail may also hold clues as to what your dog is thinking and feeling. According to a study on tail-wagging, a dog may wag its tail more to the right when it sees someone it likes, while it may wag more to the left if it sees a new or unfamiliar person. These cues can be subtle and easy to miss. 

As discussed above, tails are a vital part of your dog’s ability to communicate, both to other people and other animals. Any dog that has its tail docked or partially removed loses its ability to communicate fully with the world around it, which is part of the reason why the practice is so harmful. 

Raised Hackles

Just like people have involuntary reactions like getting goosebumps, dogs also have similar reactions. For instance, when dogs experience piloerection or raised hackles, the hair on their spine stands up. 

Piloerection occurs in dogs when they are aroused and alert and could be caused by both positive and negative reasons. However, until you can determine the source of your dog’s excitement, it’s best to avoid touching them, as they may be feeling very defensive and could even be ready to strike. 


Your dog’s stance can tell you a lot about how they are feeling. When a dog is trying to appease, they may be feeling afraid or threatened and will usually take actions to make their bodies look smaller, like being hunched toward the ground or rolling over and exposing their bellies. 

According to the American Kennel Club, when dogs engage in this posture, they are trying to say, “I mean no harm.”

The classic “downward dog” posture with the front legs on the ground and the bottom in the air invites play, especially when the two front paws are used to tap against the ground at the same time.

Alternately, if your dog is standing erect on its front legs with its weight shifted forward, it is trying to make its body appear larger, which can indicate that your dog is feeling threatened. If the threat does not go away, your dog may feel that they need to switch from offensive posturing to defensive actions, which means that your dog could try to bite.

It’s important to be able to read the situation to keep you and your family safe and happy with your furry friend.

Facial Expressions

Just like their human companions, dogs use their faces to communicate their feelings. However, they do not always use them in the same ways.

For instance, dogs yawn just as their owners do. However, when dogs yawn, it is typically a sign that they are feeling stressed or anxious, and they use this action to help self-regulate.

In fact, you can yawn at your dog in stressful moments, such as vet visits, to help them feel some relief from their anxiety.

Dogs also lick their lips, and this action can have dual meanings. Dogs often lick their lips if they are staring at a delicious treat or have just finished a meal, but dogs also lick their lips if they are feeling anxious.

Use your judgment and the context of the situation to decide if your dog is ready to eat or possibly feeling stressed.

Another common facial expression that can have different meanings depending on the situation is smiling. If a dog is feeling defensive and pulls up their lips to display their teeth, they are trying to warn the threat to back down or go away.

This expression is often paired with growling or snarling, and it is usually not hard to tell that the dog is acting aggressively.

However, some breeds of dogs can smile in happy situations with an expression that is known as a “submissive grin.” This smile is generally accompanied by a loose and relaxed posture and is a sign that your dog is feeling secure and peaceful. 

Contact Greenlin Pet Resorts For Your Training Needs

If you are having a hard time deciphering the body language or sounds your dog makes when trying to communicate with you, reach out to the experienced professionals at Greenlin Pet Resorts. Our trainers are happy to work with you to teach you how to best understand your dog, in addition to helping instill the good habits you want your dog to possess. 

With six convenient locations in the central Pennsylvania region, we are always close by. Book ONLINE now:

We can’t wait to welcome you to our Greenlin Pet Resort Family!