People can communicate what is going on with them, and so can dogs. The difference is that humans primarily use verbal communication, while dogs communicate mainly non-verbally through the use of body language and secondarily through vocalization. This body language includes tail carriage and movement, ear and eye position, body position and movement, and facial expressions. Understanding body language and the capability to accurately recognize it will help decipher what a dog is trying to communicate.
When observing a dog’s body language to determine what is being communicated, it is crucial to observe the entire dog and the situation/context to determine exactly what is being communicated. For example, a wagging tail may not necessarily signify a friendly canine. A moving tail, as part of the dog’s body language, which is easily recognizable, is often first noticed. However, if the dog’s body is stiff, the ears are back and the dog is in a squatting position, these other features of body language tell you that this is not a happy dog.
There are five common groups of communication signals for dogs. As you go through the groups, remember that in a particular situation a dog can prove more than one of these groupings in response to the situation. For example, a dog may begin to display excitation signals in response to a stimulus, decide that the stimulus is a threat, and switch to aggressive signals, fear signals, or even both. Remember also that stress can drastically affect a dog’s response to a particular situation. Again, we need to look at the whole dog and its body language and situation/environment to get a “big” picture of what the dog communicates, what can happen next, and what are appropriate responses should be.