Can dogs truly understand each other?

June 17, 2024 - 6 min read
This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian with any questions you may have regarding your pet’s care, treatment, or medical conditions.
Illustration of two dogs facing each other with various translations of 'hello' in the background.

Can Dogs Truly Understand Each Other? 

H2: Article snapshot

Get ready to learn about the fascinating ways that dogs communicate with each other, and how well they understand one another. Here’s some of what we’ll be exploring:

- Methods of communication: Visual signals (body language, facial expressions), auditory signals (barking, growling), and olfactory signals (scent marking, sniffing).

- Scientific evidence: Studies show dogs can interpret each other's signals, influenced by domestication and individual traits.

- Factors affecting communication: Domestication, environment, upbringing, and individual personality traits.

- Benefits for pet parents: Effective training techniques, better management of multi-dog households, and better bonding with pets.

- Management tips: Observe and learn from your dog's communication signals to improve interactions and reduce conflicts.

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A close-up of a concerned yellow Labrador Retriever with a gentle expression, receiving an examination by a veterinarian whose hands are shown holding a clipboard, in a clinical setting.

H2: Dog communication 101: Can dogs understand each other?

Have you ever watched your dog brush noses with another pup and wondered if they were speaking honest-to-goodness dogese? Whether it’s through a wagging tail, a playful bark, or a quick sniff, our furry friends do seem to have a complex way of communicating.

So let's explore the different methods dogs use to communicate and try to answer the question: Can dogs genuinely understand each other — and if so, what language are they speaking?

A white and tan whippet dog laying down next to a brown french bull dog on a beige background

Importance of studying canine communication

Studying how dogs communicate isn’t just interesting—it can also lead to practical benefits. By understanding these interactions, we can:

  • Improve training techniques: Using communication signals that dogs naturally understand can make training more effective and enjoyable for both you and your pet.

  • Manage multi-dog households more effectively: Recognizing and interpreting dogs' signals can help reduce conflicts and promote harmony among your pets.

  • Bring you and your pup closer: By understanding your dog's communication methods, you can better meet their needs and strengthen your relationship.

Understanding canine communication can transform the way we interact with our furry friends, making our homes happier and our training sessions more successful. 

Communication methods among dogs

Dogs have a rich and varied way of communicating with each other, using a combination of visual, auditory, and olfactory signals. Each method plays a crucial role in how dogs convey messages, understand each other, and maintain social order. 

Puppy Eyes That Melt Your Heart

Visual signals

Visual signals are perhaps the most noticeable form of dog communication. These include body language like tail movement, facial expressions, and posture:

  • Tail movement: A wagging tail generally indicates happiness or excitement, while a tucked tail can signify fear or submission.

  • Facial expressions: Raised eyebrows and a relaxed mouth can suggest a dog is calm and content, whereas bared teeth and a wrinkled nose are signs of aggression or discomfort.

  • Posture: A confident dog often stands tall with ears perked up, while a submissive dog may crouch low to the ground with ears flattened back.

An old elderly English Springer Spaniel dog at 14 years age, Happy and enjoying life.

Auditory signals

Dogs use a variety of sounds to communicate with each other, and each sound can carry a different meaning. Some common auditory signals include:

  • Barking: Dogs bark–both at each other and at humans–for many reasons, including to alert others to danger, express excitement, or get attention.

  • Growling: Growling is usually a warning sign, indicating that a dog feels threatened or is protecting something valuable.

  • Whining: Dogs often whine when they are feeling anxious, seeking attention, or in discomfort.

An adult dog and a puppy lying on the floor touching noses

Olfactory signals

Scent plays a major role in how dogs communicate and understand their environment. Dogs have an extraordinary sense of smell, and they use it to gather information and convey messages through:

  • Scent marking: Dogs often mark their territory with urine to establish boundaries and communicate their presence to other dogs.

  • Pheromones: These chemical signals can convey information about a dog’s reproductive status, mood, and identity.

  • Sniffing behaviors: When dogs meet, they typically sniff each other to gather information about one another, such as health, diet, and emotional state.

By understanding these communication methods, we can gain a deeper appreciation of how dogs interact with each other and navigate their social world.

Evidence of understanding in dog interactions

Scientific research has provided fascinating insights into how dogs communicate and understand each other. Studies and observations of canine interactions offer compelling evidence that dogs are capable of interpreting each other’s signals effectively.

Case study on dog communication

A 2018 study appropriately called Communication in Dogs emphasized that dogs use body language, facial expressions, and tail movements to convey emotions and intentions to other dogs. 

Methods of dog communication and their functions:

Methods Examples Functions
Visual signals Body language, facial expressions, tail movements Convey emotions and intentions
Auditory signals Barking, growling, whining Alert, warn, seek attention, express emotions
Olfactory signals Scent marking, sniffing Identify, establish territory, convey reproductive status
Tactile Signals Physical contact, grooming Reinforce social bonds, establish dominance

Vocalizations like barking and whining serve different purposes based on context, while scent marking and sniffing provide information about identity and emotional state. Tactile interactions, such as physical contact and grooming, reinforce social bonds or establish dominance.

Even growling has a nuanced place in canine confabs. A notable 2010 case study examined how dogs use growls in different contexts. Researchers recorded growls from 20 dogs during play, bone-guarding, and reacting to a threat. They found that the sound of the growls varied depending on the situation. For instance, play growls had a different pitch and tone compared to more aggressive growls used during bone-guarding. Playback experiments showed food-guarding growls were more effective at deterring other dogs than threat growls.

This study provided powerful evidence that dogs use context-specific vocalizations to communicate.

The emerging field of canine behavioral science continues to uncover intricate details about dog communication, including how social behaviors and sensory perceptions play a role. Recent studies have highlighted the sophisticated ways in which dogs convey and interpret signals, shaping their social interactions.

Multiple dogs socializing in a grassy dog park

Factors affecting dog communication

While dogs have a natural ability to communicate with each other, several factors can influence how effectively they convey and interpret signals. These factors include domestication, environment and upbringing, and individual personality traits.

Influence of domestication

Domestication has played a significant role in shaping how dogs communicate. Over thousands of years, dogs have evolved alongside humans, leading to changes in their communication methods. Studies suggest that domesticated dogs are particularly adept at reading human gestures and expressions, a skill that likely developed through close interaction with people.

However, this domestication has not diminished their ability to understand other dogs. Instead, it's enhanced their communication skills, making them more versatile in both canine and human social settings.

Impact of environment and upbringing

A dog’s environment and upbringing can significantly influence its communication abilities. Dogs raised in social environments with plenty of interaction with other dogs tend to be more skilled at interpreting canine signals. Socialization and training also play crucial roles, helping dogs learn the appropriate ways to communicate and respond in different situations.

Individual personality traits

Just like humans, dogs have individual personalities that affect how they communicate. Some breeds are naturally more expressive and communicative, while others might be more reserved.

For example, Border Collies and Golden Retrievers are known for their high energy and sociability, often using a wide range of vocalizations and body language to communicate. On the other hand, breeds like Bulldogs and Shiba Inus tend to be more independent and less overtly expressive. Individual differences can also be seen within breeds, with some dogs being more adept at using and understanding certain signals than others.

Can dogs from different countries understand each other?

It might sound silly, but this is a surprisingly common question. If humans can't understand each other across borders, why should dogs be any different?

But according to all available evidence, the tower of Babel didn't have too much of an effect on dogs. The study "Communication in Dogs" (already mentioned above) explores the fact that dogs use consistent visual, auditory, and olfactory signals to communicate. While there may be slight variations in specific signals due to local customs and training practices, dogs can generally communicate with one another quite effectively regardless of their origin.

Two young girls and a golden retriever sitting on a grey couch

Benefits of understanding dog communication for owners

By learning to interpret your pup's signals, you can improve training and manage multi-dog households more effectively.

Effective training techniques

Using your dog's natural communication signals during training can make the process smoother and more effective. For example:

  • Responding to body language: Recognizing when your dog is relaxed or anxious can help you tailor your training approach. A calm, relaxed dog is more likely to respond positively to training sessions.

  • Utilizing vocal cues: Dogs respond well to consistent vocal signals, especially when you're training them to come or walk with a leash. By understanding how your dog reacts to different tones and sounds, you can communicate your commands more clearly.

  • Reinforcing positive behaviors: Observing and reinforcing desired behaviors (think clickers, treats, or praise) aligns with how dogs naturally understand positive reinforcement.

Better management of multi-dog households

If you have more than one dog, understanding their communication can help maintain peace and harmony in your home. Here’s how:

  • Recognizing social hierarchies: Dogs establish social hierarchies through their interactions. Understanding these dynamics can help you manage potential conflicts and foster a more peaceful environment.

  • Preventing misunderstandings: By interpreting your dogs' signals, you can step in before a minor disagreement escalates into a fight.

  • Facilitating introductions: Knowing how to read dogs’ body language can make introducing a new dog to the household less stressful and more successful.

The bottom line: By understanding canine communication, you can build a more fulfilling relationship with your pets.

Keep observing and learning from your pets

Your own observations are invaluable. Spend time watching how your dog interacts with others. This hands-on experience can greatly enhance your understanding of your pet.

By being attentive to your dog's communication methods, you can respond to their needs more effectively, reduce misunderstandings, and create a more harmonious living environment. So keep exploring, learning, and engaging with your dog to build a fulfilling and joyful relationship. In the end, you'll be able to understand them better than anyone.

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David Teich
Lead Editor

David oversees content strategy and development at ManyPets. As Lead Editor, he focuses on delivering accurate information related to pet care and insurance. David’s editorial background spans more than a decade, including a pivotal role at Digiday, where he wrote content and managed relationships with media and tech companies. As an Associate Editor at Cynopsis Media, David wrote the Cynopsis Digital newsletter and interviewed executives and digital marketing experts in the TV industry. His background also includes film journalism. His diverse experiences in journalism and marketing underpins his role in shaping content within the pet care industry.