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New ISCP graduate Karen Davies states in her thought-provoking thesis: “… my intention was to shift the focus from what dogs knew about our efforts to communicate to them. I wanted to look at dog-human communication from the dog’s perspective.”

 A Review of Dog-Human Communication and Its Effect on the Dog-Human Relationship: The View from By Your Side …. Listening and Learning from What You Tell Us


Lots of people talk to animals……Not very many listen though……That’s the problem

Benjamin Hoff. The Tao of Pooh



Submitted to the International School of Canine Psychology and Behaviour

In partial fulfilment of the requirements for the Diploma in Canine Behaviour

Karen Davies


Until last year I had spent twenty years working in human General Practice as an Advanced Nurse Practitioner, the role involved me consulting with, making diagnosis, ordering tests and prescribing medications and treatments for the forty-three patients I saw in my working day alongside my GP colleagues. Every seven to ten minutes, I started a new conversation, examined, diagnosed and treated whoever it was who had knocked on my door when I called them from the waiting room, but most important of all was that I had to listen and I had to hear what was being said and on so many occasions I had to listen hardest to what was not being said. I looked for the little signs that told me that the person sat near to me had way more to say than what they had first presented with. It was no coincidence that I often ran behind my allotted surgery times, when someone trusted me enough to tell me their story, there was no way I was going to ignore them, turn away, avert my eyes, concentrate on my computer, stop listening. The consequences of ignoring what someone told me could literally have had the most devastating effects on their health and wellbeing. It is with this understanding of the importance of listening and of being listened to that I have been motivated to chance at a second career in dog behaviour and training. I have been inspired in the subject of dog-human communication by all the dogs I see whose attempts at communicating their emotional state is ignored or misunderstood; but also by all the people who do listen and so generously share their knowledge, understanding and love for the benefit of dogs and their people.


Dogs and humans are social group species who have developed a symbiotic relationship, because, it is thought, that they have evolved alongside each other. The Human-Dog relationship is said to be based on a mutual understanding which has led to dogs working alongside humans in a vast number of roles which are developing in their complexity, particularly as we learn more about the physiology of the dogs olfactory abilities. Research has found that dogs understand the intent behind our voice intonations and some direct movements such as pointing. Humans on the other hand can recognise ‘happiness’ in dogs and the difference between an aggressive and fearful bark, but are poor at recognising other emotions in the faces and body language of dogs. Humans recognise the immense importance of communication; indeed our lives depend on it. World commerce, security and health are based on the fact that we share our innovations, knowledge and resources. However, despite humans reliance on communication with others of our own species and a knowledge of the symbiotic relationship we have with dogs, thousands of dogs are given up to rescue and many are euthanised each year because their efforts to communicate what they were feeling went unheeded, and many dogs live every-day in the social isolation that being ignored or misunderstood brings. In this review, I aim to explore the issues affecting Dog-Human communication, the consequences to dogs and humans of getting it wrong and how, when it does occur with a mutual understanding it can lead to the formation of a strong and enduring bond which benefits the wellbeing of both dogs and humans.


 Every once in a while, a dog enters your life and changes everything” Anonymous

Four years ago a dog entered our home and it is because of her that I find myself having left a long career in nursing as a high level clinician to embark on a journey towards what I hope will be my new working life with dogs and their guardians.

After many years of dog ownership and having successfully trained and worked dogs, I wasn’t expecting to feel so unprepared for life with a dog whose early experiences affected her to the extent that she appeared to be afraid of life itself.

At first, I did not understand her, I was frustrated, disappointed and embarrassed by her behaviour. Then something terrible happened. I sought some help from someone whose methods for behaviour modification I thought I had thoroughly explored, but I was told over the phone what that person knew I wanted to hear and not the truth of their methods.  My heart sank when in person, that individual told me that my dog was being ‘dominant’, her barking at other dogs and visitors to our house was her trying to be ‘Alpha’, she did not want new people in our house because she felt ‘in-charge’ of the ‘pack den’. As this person spoke he proceeded to take something out of his pocket and in one swift movement he slammed down onto my hard kitchen floor, brass ‘training disks’. It was in that exact moment, as the disks hit the floor almost simultaneously with the flattened form of my terrified dog that I was to realise the devastating implications of the misunderstanding, misinterpretation and miscommunication between humans and dogs. The fear my dog had expressed as the disks hit the ground was as clear a communication of her emotional state as she could have demonstrated, but it was exactly the same emotion she had been trying to express well before that in the at first subtle and then overt behaviours.

It took less than two minutes to dismiss that individual from our yard. When I returned to my still rigidly fearful dog flattened tightly on the floor, I was to find her older half- sister lying close alongside of her, was this empathy? So not only was I, an ordinary dog owner, able to understand these expressions of emotion but I was to acknowledge the urgent need to explore why it is that some humans struggle to recognise what it is that dogs are communicating to us. Two years and much heartache later we are still working through the damage that was done on that day.

Since then I have observed dogs, all the time, lots of them and their people. I have seen things that have melted my heart, filled me with joy and hope and things that have saddened me greatly, both extremes have motivated my learning.

Not long before I left my job, a colleague, a dedicated and kind nurse asked me exasperatedly what should she do with her young Beagle? Why, she asked, had he crashed through the hedge in their huge garden and run for miles across fields at great speed with his nose glued to the ground? He completely ignored all attempts at recalling him by name, even when they got really angry! I was about to discuss the dogs breed and their propensity for hunting when she added “he’s so selfish, he’s got all that garden to play in and he just knew it was an inconvenient time, he knew I was about to have fifteen seven year olds arrive at the house for my daughters party, why would he be so spiteful?” The Beagles apparent misdemeanours? Not the act of hunting and not coming back when called, but selfishness and spite. He was apparently supposed to appreciate the garden he looked at every day and to know the full details of the childs party. Remember, this was an intelligent and caring person speaking these words. I smiled to myself as I imagined the dog in my head, a ‘Snoopy’ like depiction of sheer joy as he took off on his hunt.

I travel a lot on a car ferry and in recent years have noticed that more people take their dogs out of their cars and up to the passenger lounges. This is perhaps one of the areas where I observe the greatest anxiety and other concerning behaviours in dogs. Although there have been many, one particular dog stands out. I was travelling back to the Island and making my way from the car deck to the passenger lounge when I saw in front of me a frustrated looking man halfway up the steep stairs holding the end of a tight lead, the other end of which was attached to the headcollar of a medium sized dog, firmly planted at the bottom of the stairs. A lady was lifting the dogs front legs onto the stairs and pushing the back half of the dog from behind. The queue of people struggled past the threesome tutting and muttering that they were in the way. Assuming that the couple would see their dogs anxiety about the stairs and return the dog to the car, I moved past. A few moments later, the red faced couple came to sit on the seat near me with their dog, ears back, head low, whale eye, almost crawling to a stop under the low table. There, he wasn’t given enough lead to be able to lie down so sat hunched under the table. The next forty minutes of the entire journey I watched the dog flinch every time someone walked past and especially the four times when the lady with him closed her glasses case with a loud snap. In these moments, he turned away and tried to lower his head, lip licked and fidgeted, these actions were met with a sharp tug on the lead and words of annoyance at his fidgeting about.

With the exception of the first account, I do not think that these events were overt displays of cruelty, but rather a lack of knowledge of dog behaviour, a complete misunderstanding of how the dogs were feeling and what it was they were trying to communicate. The humans did not understand the needs and language of the dog. When I think about the people in these interactions, including myself, I am reminded of the words of the brilliant psychologist, Susan Friedman: “we can- not do better, until we know better”.


Communication with our own species has never been easier, with multitudes of people instantly connected via devices we can carry with us at all times. However, is it this impersonal, written word communication that has created our hunger for information and quenched the thirst we once had for knowledge and understanding?

Rarely do we seek the true feelings behind what it is that someone is ‘saying’ and therefore only interpret the words we see or hear and not the faces and bodies of those saying them. When we ask someone how they are, how often do we really look past the reply of “I’m fine thanks” to seek their true emotional state? A state which may be more evident in their facial expression and body language than in the words they use. This may come from an awkward discomfort for avoiding the truth or the time constraints of our crowded days, but it may also be that our reliance on the verbal information we’re given precludes our interest in the actual true emotional state of the person. Ironically, we are taking what we hear, at face value. Thus, our abilities to communicate via written word and using our incredible and unique auditory senses is perhaps making us less able to communicate with our own species with true understanding; we’ve learned not to ‘look’ at the emotional state of those around us, to miss subtle efforts at communication of feelings and instead we wait for the frustrated but more obvious signals we’re given. We constantly shift the responsibility of clarity onto the sender, wanting them to make things easy for us by giving us all the information from the start-as loud, clear and concise as they possibly can. Indeed, even Ekman (2003) remarks that unfortunately his research has found that most of us are not very good at recognising how other people are feeling unless the expressions are strong.

It is no surprise then, that dogs efforts at communicating their feelings to humans are so often misunderstood and misinterpreted. All too often, humans wait for that loud, clear and concise communication which is then labelled as aggression, a behavioural problem or a spiteful manipulative act; and what choice do they have? As Sarah Fisher is often heard to say: “If we don’t listen to the whispers, dogs have no option but to shout”. What is surprising though, is that dogs continue to strive to read us, assess our emotions and even our physical state of health. Dogs remain committed to the dog-human relationship and it is they who constantly and successfully seek to understand us (Payne et al 2015), therefore I believe we owe it to dogs to learn what we can about how they communicate their ‘state of self’ to us, then we can positively promote the immense value to the health and well-being of both species of the dog-human relationship.

The Co-Evolution Theory and Domestication

Both dogs and humans are social group species which means that they are genetically inclined to group together and follow rules. According to Krause and Ruxton (2002) social groups evolve when the net benefit of close association with con-specifics exceed the cost. Social group species develop social tolerance and social attentiveness, two aspects of social living that are necessary for co-operation (Range and Viranyi 2015). What makes domestic dogs so different is that their social group consists of another species-Humans and perhaps always has done. Their ability to co-operate through social tolerance and social attentiveness spread beyond their own species, to include the humans they are believed to have evolved alongside (Hare and Tomasello 2005).

Many have postulated the theory of co-evolution (Csanyi 2000, Hare and Tomasello 2005, Soproni et al 2001, Vila et al 1997) whereby dogs and humans went through a complex convergent evolutionary process. Research into the development of the dog-human relationship has led scientists Coppinger and Coppinger (2001) and Price (1984) to describe domestication as an evolutionary process by which populations of animals adapt to humans and the captive environment by a process of genetic changes. Thus, dogs as creatures who are highly adaptive to a wide range of ecological conditions, began to occupy a specific environment or niche that was created by humans when they settled and began to produce food waste. Once dogs were domesticated it is believed they were selectively bred to perform certain tasks which in turn constituted a need to use their social tolerance and social attentiveness abilities to ensure their co-operation in performing those tasks with their human social group (Cooper et al 2003). Range and Viranyi (2015) describe this as the Domestication Hypothesis and use it to explain why dogs and wolves have developed behavioural differences, in short, dogs quickly became dependent on the humans they lived with and therefore needed to develop social cognition in order to survive. This dependence continues to this day, according to Coppinger and Coppinger (2016), who state that if humans died out, so would dogs.

The social co-operation needed for co-existence as one half of a divergent social group meant that both dogs and humans had to develop new social cognitive skills, not with their own species but with those of their dog / human co-habitants. They had to learn to communicate with each other. Miklosi (2015) supports this view by suggesting that whatever the species, communication occurs with the need for co-operation. Hare and Tomasello (2005) also discuss how the same influences that drove the development of social cognitive skills of dogs, were also the ones that shaped human social skills. There is some suggestion that both species developed such similar social cognitive skills as a by-product of selection for other desirable traits such as ‘emotional-reactivity’; those with an aggressive temperament were not given the same opportunities to reproduce (Gacsi et al 2009, Hare and Tomasello 2005) and so those with a more co-operative temperament thrived. For dogs this meant that not only those with the most co-operative temperament but those with the abilities to perform certain tasks best or that had the physical characteristics to best carry out a task were selectively bred from (Coppinger and Coppinger 2016).

We can see exactly how this occurred when we look at the work of Russian scientist Dmitri Belyaev who selectively bred silver foxes on a fur farm in Russia for tameness (Miklosi 2015). The experiment not only achieved tameness but the tamer foxes developed softer, floppier ears and changes in coat colour to include more white and all this in the short time frame of around ten years (Belyaev 1979).  Belyaevs’ experiment showed the physiological effect of genetically selecting for tameness, identifying a link between the fight/flight hormone adrenaline and the cell pigment melanin that determines coat colour and which both share a metabolic pathway. Less adrenaline = less melanin. There were also changes in dopamine and serotonin levels, dopamine and serotonin are neurotransmitters which are responsible for feelings of pleasure, reward, motivation and mood in mammals, and the experiment saw an increase in these in the foxes too.

What this experiment shows us is that it is likely that very early in the domestication of dogs, were humans beginning to manipulate the characteristics of dogs for their own benefits (Coppinger and Coppinger 2016). It is inevitable that the dogs ability to communicate using the social-cognitive skills humans recognised in themselves, was one of the influences for selective breeding.

Communication and Language: The Art of Listening?

Communication it seems, is very difficult to define and where it has been defined, the written words often offer an inadequate and sterile view of a vast, varied and complex process by which all living things exchange information. When exploring the meaning of the subject, I found the focus is usually on human-human communication and mostly to do with business and commerce, highlighting the immense importance that communication has to our own species.

The Oxford English Dictionary definition of communication states:

[The imparting or exchange of information by speaking, writing or using some other medium]

However, a definition written in 1959, long before the age of digital communication offers a much more meaningful view of what it is to communicate:

“Communication is the process by which we understand others and in turn endeavour to be understood by them. It is dynamic, constantly changing and shifting in response to the total situation” (Anderson 1959)

Andersons definition does not specify the use of words or writing which is more common in modern definitions and it considers both the sender and receiver of the information and the importance of understanding on the part of both. Andersons definition captures what it is that we do when we are communicating, we are expressing our ‘sense of self’, our thoughts, feelings and emotions.

So where was it that we lost the importance of conveying and receiving understanding, and replaced it simply with information exchange?

In human-human communication it is accepted that there is a process by which a message originates from a sender and is decoded and acknowledged by the receiver in the form of the feedback they provide. In this illustration Cheyney (2011) identifies the important elements of communication.

                                                                                                      Fig: 1 The Communication Process. (Cheney 2011)

The quality of a communication is determined by the elements in the communication process and a problem in any one of these elements can reduce the effectiveness of the communication (Keyton 2011). In this process ‘Noise’ refers to factors in the environment where the communication takes place and the internal perceptions and experiences of both the sender and the receiver of the communication. The ‘Medium’ is the way in which the message is conveyed; spoken, written, sign or symbol. However, Font and Carazo (2010) argue that the human linguistic approach to animal communication is questionable because although animal communication has meaning, it does not convey messages. Their argument is formed on the basis that humans are able to form mental representations of the message they give and are given and, they say, animals can- not (Font and Carazo 2010).

This brings us to look at the controversial term of language.

Language: [The method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way] Oxford English dictionary.

Definitions of language refer to human communication. In ethology terms, animals are rarely credited with language, language it seems, is the domain of humans. Coren (2000) suggests that whether animals have language or not depends on how language is defined and Martinelli (2010) argues that a common definition of language has never been reached and it is still not clear whether language is a purely human feature or not. However, Sebeok the founder of the term Zoosemiotics (the study of sounds, signs and signals used in animal communication. argues very firmly that language is not a communication device but is a ‘modelling system’ and applying the term ‘language’ to the generic term ‘animal’ to form the phrase ‘animal language’ or even in identifying particular animals such as dogs and using the phrase ‘dog-language’ are “unscientific nonsense” (Sebeok 1995). He states: “Quite simply, humans have language, other animals do not” (Sebeok 1996). Others also argue that language is a unique human behaviour (Mannell 1999).  Abrantes (1997) titled his book: DOG LANGUAGE. An Encyclopaedia of Canine Behaviour, but then under the section on ‘Language’ states that “in the authors opinion it is not useful to talk of the dog’s communication system as a true language”.  It appears that scientists and ethologists can- not agree on the matter of language, perhaps, because there are still those who want to separate humans from other animals (Bekoff 2012).

Whatever the controversies about the nomenclature of how dogs communicate there is no doubt that communication exists between dogs and humans, just as it does in other inter-specific interactions. In line with the theory of dog-human co-evolution, Miklosi (2015) suggests that the development of inter-specific communication between dogs and humans was shaped by a combination of evolutionary processes, environment and domestication. He adds the widely agreed definition of animal communication:

“communicating interactions come about when it is in the interest of the signaller to modify the behaviour of the receiver” [Miklosi 2015]

What we can be sure of is that just as we do today, early humans will have wanted to manage the behaviour of dogs. What we do not know is whether in the early evolution of humans and dogs, we were better at reading the communicative signals of dogs than we are today. It may be that as humans developed their vast linguistic communication capabilities, there has been a decline in the skills required to effectively communicate using signals other than acoustic and written ones. This is a different view to that proposed by Psychologist Dr Albert Mehrabian who argued that non-verbal communication is deeply rooted in the human brain which is why it is still the primary way of communicating today. The communication model developed by Dr Mehrabian which states that just 7% of human-human communication is verbal; with a huge 55% of human-human communication conducted through facial expressions, gestures and postures is still very much used and respected as a seminal work on the subject (Mulder 2012, Tenzin-Dolma 2017). Dr Mehrabian was instrumental in bringing the essential elements of non-verbal communication to the business world when he defined the aspects of human-human communication, stating that verbal and non-verbal elements of communication support each other and clearly display the emotions behind the words used, as long as there is congruence between the verbal and non-verbal message (Mehrabian 1981). However, in 2014 research evidence emerged which suggested that digital media communication is affecting children’s ability to read other peoples emotions (Uhls et al 2014). I would hypothesise then that most humans, not just children have become less attentive to the subtle visual signals used instinctively by our own species and other animals, even when the signs escalate to become more obvious. In support of this view, Meints (2017) discusses how it has been shown that both children and adults often lack understanding of dog body language. Mariti et al (2012) also found that owners had difficulty recognising their dogs stress despite overt signs. As a species so reliant on communication, humans are now almost exclusively verbal communicators, relying on their language of words in acoustic or written form. Perhaps what we should look at then, is the impact of digital communication and societal changes on how we as humans ‘attend to’ others around us, whether human or non-human animals. In my experience of working with and studying wellbeing in people, when we are actively listened to, we are often surprised by the experience, and not only because it involves the receiver of our communication looking closely at our face and body, but because we have become unused to being listened to (Goode 2016). Some of us though, either through our work or because we are genuinely interested in the wellbeing of others, find ourselves still able to ‘see’ what another being is communicating to us, even when they are not doing so verbally. A close and dear friend of my husbands would look a person directly in the eyes and ask, “how are you?”; and you would at once see the genuine enquiry in his own eyes as he explored the face of the person for the truth behind their reply. This remained so even when he became very ill with cancer and one would feel the desperate injustice in being asked the question with such a deeply expressed interest in a person not so violated by illness. This friend worked with children who had experienced extreme violence in their lives and were often verbally uncommunicative. He would say that he listened with his eyes and at times would be told too much.

Emotions Vs Anthropomorphism: An ongoing battle of science

If the issues of language and communication in dogs cause some scientists to shake their heads and stamp their feet, imagine the effect that the word ‘emotions’ has when attached to those of dog-human relationship. It is not just recent influences and lack of agreement over what constitutes language and communication that contributes to the continued misunderstanding of the communication signals of dogs. Back in the 17th century Rene Descartes a French philosopher and mathematician wrote of animals: “The ‘problem’ with animals is thus the absence of soul”. He argued that the possession of a soul was only evident through verbal language. He suggested that animals do not have conscience and therefore do not think. His famous quote “I think therefore I am” illustrates his belief that sentience is linked only to the ability to verbalise ones experiences in a subjective manner-what he describes as ‘thinking’. Therefore, argued Descartes “when a dog is hit, the sound emitted is no different to that of a machine not working properly” he believed that because an animal can- not think, it has no capacity to feel (Veitch 2008). Although others challenged Descartes views, it was not until the next century when Charles Darwin wrote his book: The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals that a wider audience was able hear a different and much more accurate view of animal behaviour. He famously wrote “Man can-not express love and humility by external signs so plainly as does a dog”. Darwin not only illustrated his book, he described the postures and expressions that were familiar to people, and therefore ones that people could recognise in their own canine companions. Darwin also proposed the theory of antithesis, during his observations of animals in their natural environments (including dogs in human society) he noted how internal (emotional) states are likely to manifest in opposing external (physical) forms eg: dominant / aggressive animals attempt to make themselves look larger and submissive / fearful animals try to make themselves look smaller. Darwin was one of the first to augment his work on emotions in animals by suggesting that animals other than humans could be taught behaviour that were neither instinctive or habitual, and therefore they were capable of thought (Darwin 1872).

However, alongside this ground-breaking work emerged a school of thought which still causes much controversy even today, Anthropomorphism: assigning human characteristics to non-human animals.

Anthropomorphism is often and consistently described by researchers as a sin to behavioural science. Martinelli (2010) in defence of anthropomorphism states that the researcher found to be applying it risks being seen as naïve and not scientifically credible. It is bewildering to those of us who through learning and experience know better, that the topic continues to cause intelligent people to use the term to argue against the existence of emotions in animals (Worrall 2015). This is despite the vast amount of research and subsequent seminal works by eminent neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp which led to him being able to convincingly describe the core emotional states of all mammals as seeking, fear, rage, lust, care, panic and play (Panksepp 2005); and the research by Mills et al (2014) into the neurobiology of stress which supports the existence of key emotional states and their accompanying emotional reactions in dogs. Many respected scientists who research animal behaviour also agree that anthropomorphism can help humans to understand animals better (Bekoff and Allen 1997, Miklosi 2015, Panksepp 2005). McConnell (2007) agrees that humans only have their own experience in order to understand the experiences of animals and Panksepp has argued that behaviourists who were still wishing to view animals as nonconscious zombies, were rapidly becoming unethical as well as unscientific (Panksepp 2003). However, it continues to be argued that, in assigning emotions to animals, we also mistakenly assign animals with human qualities (Wynne 2007). It seems there will always be those scientists who will denounce others who apply emotional terms to animals, as unscientific. As recently as 2012 Dawkins criticised Bekoff by stating that he goes in for “full-blooded, genuine anthropomorphism” (Dawkins 2012), after reading Bekoffs thoughts on “living with a dog and knowing first hand that animals have feelings”.

What we know to be true is that dogs are particularly subjected to our tendency to anthropomorphise, because they live in our homes, work with us, care for us, provide companionship and society with others of our own species through sharing activities with our dogs; but they also sometimes show signs of aggression, they bite and sometimes even kill, does it not make sense then that we want to understand them, just as they try and understand us?

What are dogs telling us?

I like science, my background is in science, I have a Master of Science Degree, I used and taught Evidence-Based clinical practice. But it was not just the scientific evidence that shaped my decision making, it was my ability to listen, to empathise, to understand and to combine what I knew about human emotions and what I felt, with my evidence based knowledge and I believe this is what we need to do to understand what dogs are communicating to us. If trying to understand a dog from their perspective is anthropomorphising, then I do it. We need to learn what science is proving to be true and combine it with our observations and our own experiences to form ideas about what dogs are saying when they behave in certain ways. Many of us look at dogs and feel the same drive to understand their ‘state of self’ and we can only do that by learning how they communicate this, using their own language of facial expressions, body postures, vocalisations and other behaviours, but we can- not know how it feels to be a dog. We can however learn how they ‘are’ when they are anxious, fearful, happy, playful, angry or relaxed.

Despite our co-evolution, our mutual social cognition, co-operation and continued co-existence (Coppinger and Coppinger 2016) we must acknowledge that the ways in which we communicate differ significantly and it is these differences that create the difficulties in knowing just what it is that dogs are telling us (Zulch 2017). As already discussed, humans are visual and verbal communicators and there is evidence to suggest that our visual communication skills are diminishing with increased use of digital media (Uhls et al 2014). Dogs communicate in four ways, visual, olfactory, auditory and tactile (Miklosi 2016) and we still have much to discover about the olfactory capabilities of dogs, it is likely that this sense plays a much larger part in dog communication than we already know of (Horowitz 2016). For humans it can be confusing trying to work out what our dogs are trying to tell us, and there are four issues which probably affect our interpretation of dog-human communication the most. Firstly, because dogs communicate their feelings mainly through their body language-facial expressions and behaviour and we are so very slow compared to dogs, dogs move much more quickly than we do so it is likely that we miss an awful lot of the subtle communications that dogs make (Breitner 2016). Secondly, and perhaps most surprisingly, we as yet have no peer reviewed, hard scientific evidence that confirms our observational evidence that certain expressions, postures or behaviours are telling us what we believe they are (Zulch 2017). Thirdly, it’s that old troublesome thing again, anthropomorphism……it is because of our tendency to do this that we do sometimes get it wrong. But I do not think that anthropomorphism is the worst of these, there is a far darker and more pernicious poison in the eyes of some people than anthropomorphism; the ugly and completely unnecessary use of force, aversive handling and the perpetuation of the theory that humans should be ‘dominant’ over their dogs. This causes immense damage to the dog-human relationship and blinds those who are taught it to the communicative attempts of dogs.

Can you say that again…only much more slowly!

Unfortunately, we can-not ask dogs to repeat themselves and reliably get a comprehensive rerun of what they wanted us to know in a way we can be assured of understanding. We know that dogs have the cognitive capacity to think and learn and research has shown that they have episodic-memory function (Fugazza et al 2016); but as yet we do not know if they have the capacity to ruminate over things they did in the past or if they make plans for the future (Martinelli 2010). Many animals are thought to ‘live in the now’, being influenced by their immediate environment and those they share it with. Linguists distinguish animal and human communication by discussing humans ability for ‘displacement’ whereby we can talk and think about remote, abstract or imaginary things that aren’t happening in our immediate environment. Whereas for dogs (and other animals) communication is context driven-they react to their immediate environment (Mannell 1999). So although a dog may be exhibiting behaviours that have been affected by past events, what they are doing at a particular time is likely to be influenced by the environment they are in at that time.

For example: One of my dogs (very briefly) went to a puppy class where the trainer used a rattle tin to disrupt playing puppies if their behaviour was getting rough (I know, I know). My dog did not grow up to be noise sensitive or fearful of rattling sounds, but she does have play-skills deficit and is unable to tolerate the sight of other dogs playing-this causes a fear response in her. So, the memory of the aversive (rattle tin) coupled with dogs playing (PAST EVENT), causes her to be affected by the sight of dogs playing or running in whatever environment she is in when she sees this trigger (CURRENT ENVIRONMENT) leading to communicating (CURRENT FEELINGS OF FEAR).

This means that when dogs communicate something to us, it is timely and immediate and relates to their current environment (Braem Dube 2017). Unlike humans, they do not mull over or rehearse a speech or wait for opportune moments to tip toe around a subject before getting to the point they wish to make. They display what they are feeling at that time in their own language. Therefore, in our dog-human interactions, we need to be able to infer what we can from the behaviour of the dog (Behaviour) and the current environment (Antecedents). This well- known ABC (Antecedents, Behaviour, Consequences) assessment (Friedman 2009) is used in behavioural analysis as well as in training, and although we want to encourage better communication and not continual analysis of the dogs behaviour, if we can learn and educate others to not only attend to the dog but to the environment too we can perhaps more accurately interpret what it is the dog is wanting us to know.

One issue with this is speed, dogs ‘show and tell’ much, much quicker than we do and this means that we miss an awful lot of the smaller, subtle signals that dogs use to tell us how they are feeling (Breitner 2016, Horowitz 2009), and if these are not seen or heard, it could be that an aggressive interaction occurs, delivered with the same immediacy but with much more severe consequences (Shepherd 2013). Whilst we are unable to do very much about our physiological differences, what we can do is help to counteract the dogs speed advantage by learning and teaching what these subtle signs might mean. The importance of this has gained momentum over the last few years, not only because we are learning more about the incredible effects to both dog and owner of the dog-human relationship, but also because there is a year on year increase in dog bite incidents (HSCIS 2014).

What did you mean when you said that?

As discussed earlier, people are not that good at seeing other peoples’ non-verbal interactions, yet alone reading them correctly, it stands to reason then that people have difficulty correctly interpreting what it is that dogs are communicating (Mills 2017), this is despite the fact that dogs and humans share many facial expressions that communicate how we are feeling (Tenzin-Dolma 2017). Waller et al (2013) describe the issue as being related to humans tendency to interpret and not just describe what they see. Ekman (2009) agrees that humans have a tendency to interpret the obvious signs they see and warns of our temptation to jump to conclusions without evaluating all of the information we are given. Waller et al (2013) found that humans responded to perceived sadness in dogs awaiting adoption; they used dog Facial Action Coding System to study what it was about the dogs features that appealed to the people. What they found was that dogs who ‘looked sad’ when viewed by potential adopters were more likely to spend less time in the shelter than those dogs who displayed behaviours more commonly associated with friendliness. Their findings were perhaps unsurprising if we consider that we share some facial expressions alongside our tendency to anthropomorphise.

In Tellington TTouch Training, we emphasise the essential aspects of developing skills in observation and describing what we see in the whole body of the dog and in not immediately assigning a feeling to the resulting observations. This is immensely helpful in preventing the observer from jumping to conclusions and possibly missing vast amounts of information that may well be contained in very subtle behaviours.  Becoming skilled in describing behaviour, can help in other ways too. It helps us to evaluate the whole dog, and importantly, the environment too. If we learn and practice assigning descriptions of what we see in our dogs and their environment we can soon become skilled at it.

We need to see the whole dog and its environment and describe what we are seeing, from this information, we can then infer what we think the dog is communicating to us and therefore how it is feeling.

But, do we really speak dog? If we are to be able to correctly infer the meaning behind the communication, we need to know what certain expressions and actions actually mean. There is a lack of research evidence underpinning expert opinion on which to base interpretations of dog body language and facial expressions though (Zulch 2017). Wynne (2007) argued that the inner state of the dog should not be determined by observing some superficial correspondence with the respective human behaviour. Since then, research has shown that owner interpretation of some behaviours confirms Wynnes view. In 2009 Horowitz researched the ‘guilty look’ so oft misinterpreted and punished by owners after the dog carried out some misdemeanour; the findings of her research were evident in the common actions of the owners. Dogs do not feel guilt, but do offer appeasing gestures in response to the displeasure shown by the owner, which to humans look very much like guilt. We also know that even after teaching, childrens’ interpretations of dogs facial expressions is poor (Meints 2017). So, not only might people miss it altogether or wrongly assign feelings which are based on their own interpretations of how a dog is behaving, but they might also be misinterpreting what they see because they are not convinced by ‘expert opinion’ that what they are seeing is a true representation of the dogs emotional state. In a recent lecture by Daniel Mills on Behaviour and Pain, students were shown a video of a dog being made to ‘smile at the camera’ for a YouTube video. Each time the dog was lifted up to the owners face, it would bare its teeth in what the owner called a comical smile. When the dog eventually bit the owner in the face it was referred to a behaviourist who had a difficult job convincing the owner that the dog was baring its teeth in a polite and desperate attempt to communicate its feelings of pain. The owner in fact asked for a second opinion from “someone who knew that dogs smiled!” Only evidence from the subsequent x-rays could convince him of his dogs neck injury and the pain resulting from it. So it is not an easy task to change perceptions, and for the time being, we only have some science and a huge amount of respected expert opinion, based on observations of dogs and our own experiences, from the time of Darwin to today; and there is some consensus at least that certain behaviours appear to indicate certain emotional states. However, only dogs actually know what they are saying, in 1997 Norwegian dog trainer, Turid Rugaas published her book, On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals, whereby she identified certain facial expressions and body postures as a dogs way of communicating how it felt and also as a way of ‘calming’ other dogs and people. However, behaviourists and trainers are beginning to question whether some of what we have been interpreting as calming behaviours amongst dogs, either to calm themselves or others, is actually the case. Others prefer to call these signals ‘stress signals’ (Stewart 2016), however, instead of assigning a term and theory to the individual signs, perhaps what we should do is recognise that they may be just a part of each individual dogs way of communicating how it feels. One of the problems with assigning just one emotion to behaviours is that we then look to confirm that what we believe is happening, is the truth, in science this is called confirmation bias and it prevents us from looking for other plausible explanations of the behaviour. Zulch (2017) discusses that some of what are described as calming signals can often be seen in situations where there is motivational conflict. Fisher (2017) agrees and adds that communication of anticipation can also be seen in the use of such signals. Breitner (2016) states that the paw lift might be anticipatory as well as a sign of anxiety. Whitehead (2017) suggests that we know very little about yawning other than it is contagious amongst dogs and humans and it helps to get more oxygen into the bloodstream. Bows in dogs are often interpreted as a dogs way of instigating play, but we know that these are meta-communication signals (Bekoff 1972), which means they are behaviours with multiple meanings and it is though that bows have a number of uses including as a distance increasing behaviour rather than an invitation to play (Whitehead 2017).

Researchers are starting to look more closely at facial expressions in dogs to see if certain expressions are actually associated with particular emotional states (Hecht 2017) and we owe it dogs to learn as much as we can and continue to question whether our interpretations of dog communication are correct. But, in the meantime, we must be mindful not to deny the valuable knowledge we have, after all, we have thousands of years of experience to draw on. The consequences of dismissing our current interpretations of facial expressions and body language would mean surrendering to the bullies whose droning refrain continues to ring out the words alpha and dominance, and would be detrimental to the well-being of both dogs and humans.

Hosey and Melfi (2014) state that it is widely believed that people have an emotional need to connect with animals. The physical, emotional and psychological well-being of both dogs and humans is greatly increased by the formation of a close and understanding relationship (Payne et al 2015), evidence exists which suggests that dogs have a fundamental need to be able to trust us since they generally recognise that we are the providers of all resources. When that trust is broken by our inappropriate response to their behaviour or by not providing adequate training or clear boundaries of acceptable behaviour; the effect on the human-dog relationship is profound. Scientists believe that dogs can develop a connection with humans similar to the parent / child relationship where dogs develop a bond with their caregiver equivalent to the ‘secure-base’ effect found in human infants. The secure-base effect is explained by the presence of the caregiver as a ‘secure-base’ on which to depend in interactions with the environment (Horn 2013). The secure-base effect can only be assured when there is trust and mutual respect and is very different to the ‘babymorph’ model where a human sees and portrays the dog as a child, which Miklosi (2015) sites as just as damaging to dog-human relationships as the lupomorph one, where the emphasis is on there being a rank style hierarchy between humans and dogs in which humans display ‘status behaviours’ in order to maintain their ‘dominant’ position. Dogs may see us as companions, resource providers and a ‘secure-base’ but do not view us as dogs to be challenged and threatened and dominated. Sdao (2012) discusses how humans can easily fall into the trap of thinking that power and control form the basis of a successful relationship and how the advocates of the dominance hierarchy continue to propose that dogs must only receive attention when the human chooses to give it, not when the dog demands it (Sdao 2012).

In their study into the effects of social isolation (being ignored or excluded) Lieberman and Eisenberger (2009) discovered that the effects on the brain were equivalent to those of experiencing physical pain. The same stress hormones are released and the same areas of the brain activated. We know from the work of Andics et al (2014) and Mendl et al (2010) that the canine and human brain is very similar and respond to emotional valence in similar ways as well as producing the same physiological effects. Leiberman and Eisenbergers (2009) research also showed that when our needs are met, we feel pleasure and this included social needs-the need for being included, recognised and listened to. Sdao (2012) argues that the most mutually rewarding dog-human relationships are not based on the outdated and disproven linear hierarchy theory but on the circular flow of communication between a dog and a human. This is reflected in research of dog-human interaction, Nagasawa et al (2009) found that oxytocin levels increase during episodes of close social interaction between dogs and humans they knew and Horowitz and Bekoff (2007) found that play between humans and their heavily anthropomorphised dogs was successful and socially rewarding for both. They concluded that the reasons for this was that both dogs and humans paid attention to each other’s needs and recognised in each other their emotional state, perhaps because of the level of anthropomorphism used (Horowitz and Bekoff 2007).

This echoes the model of social interaction based on something called Game Theory which broadly suggests that social relationships are overwhelmingly maintained by sharing, affiliative behaviours and mutual respect.  McGreevy et al (2012) and Miklosi and Topal (2013) have formed theories based on research of dog-human relationships. They accept that within social groups a fluid social ‘network’ exists which contributes to and perpetuates the existence of the group. The Social Competence model developed by Miklosi and Topal (2013) and based on Social Network or Game Theory reiterates that humans see dogs as dogs, they understand their needs and their attempts to communicate their feelings and understand that they are not constantly striving to dominate us. It is also understood that dogs know that humans are not dogs but are aware that we control all of the dogs resources. This model is kind and fair but requires an awareness of both the subtleties of canine communication and an even interpretation of actions taken by a dog when it does feel confused, fearful or threatened. Therefore, it is up to us to learn to recognise the subtle body language of dogs, what they are trying to communicate to us and to manage their needs in a way that maintains their safety and the trust they put in us. Game Theory in the context of the successful dog-human relationship presents the perspective that each acts for the benefit of the other, allowing each, time to communicate their needs and emotional state in order to develop trust and mutual respect and explains why these relationships develop fluidly even if not effortlessly to become enduring bonds.


Throughout this review I have deliberately avoided discussing just how much dogs know about humans, they know what we mean when we point, they follow our gaze, they learn our words, they know when we are unwell or are about to be, they understand our emotional cues often sooner and better than our own species and they tolerate our brash, confusing and uncoordinated physical signals. My initial literature search produced vast amounts of research on all of this, but, my intention was to shift the focus from what dogs knew about our efforts to communicate to them. I wanted to look at dog-human communication from the dog’s perspective.

I found very little evidence which can tell us exactly which body language and facial expressions portray the emotional state of dogs. It is possible that the lack of research, alongside a reluctance by some to acknowledge that dogs even have emotions and a fear in others of being discredited for anthropomorphising, which helps to perpetuate the ignorant and arrogant disregard for dogs which we see portrayed by charismatic celebrities masquerading as dog trainers. What I did find though is an exceptional array of anecdotal evidence which has originated from thousands of years of observation and mutual interest in the one species that has shared our homes from the very beginning.

Only when we seek to understand dogs more, and share that understanding repeatedly, convincingly and as widely as possible will we be able to expose those who risk destroying a relationship that has evolved, developed and endured, despite our differences, for thousands of years.

Dogs and humans share a special relationship which has a great impact on the overall well-being of both species. In many cases a relationship forms between one human and dog/dogs which is based on a deep and enduring bond formed on a solid base of mutual understanding of the emotional state of the other. Being acknowledged, listened to, understood and cared for are basic needs of both species and maybe this is what makes dogs constantly adapt to the demands of the human world they live in, they know what it is to be understood, loved and cared for and also how it feels to be lonely, ignored and misunderstood.  Dogs constantly strive to learn about us, how we communicate, what we are feeling, what our state of health is; humans can help dogs and themselves by learning to take the time to really listen, to see what their dogs and the people around them are truly feeling, what their ‘state of self’ really is.

It is my belief that if we encourage the development of a loving bond between dog and human, we will, as a consequence, just know what it is that dogs are telling us, there will be no effort in this communication, it will just happen and it will be the mutual exchange of understanding through a two-way connection, constantly flowing.



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