How Your Dog Communicates With You

At this very moment, as I sit here writing this, one of my two dogs is whining nonstop. Two thoughts occur: First, is it possible literally to be annoyed to death? And second, is this sound — which easily makes the list of sounds that make me want to run off the edge of a mountain — one of the many ways your dog is trying to communicate with you? (Some followups: If it is, what is he trying to say? I imagine it's something along the lines of, "Hey Mom, I'm bored, so I'm going to make this sound until I bother you so much that you just start to cry. By the way, I also pooped in your office again.")

I've always known that dogs were smart, but I suspect we're still underestimating just how sophisticated they are. A lot of canine habits that we find annoying and troublesome are actually our pups trying to tell us something. For instance, the day the same dog destroyed one of my best pair of sandals wasn't just because he didn't like them. (Dachshunds are notorious for having a horrible sense of fashion anyway.)

Before you write off your dog's curious habits as meaningless, consider whether Fido might be trying to tell you something.

Tilting Their Head

Research has a few explanations behind this one. One is that your dog tilts his head when you're talking to it because it's trying to hear better with a particular ear. A second explanation is that because we generally respond positively to this head movement (because it's so adorable), a dog can pick up on that and therefore do it more, to receive the positive reinforcement it craves. Yet another belief amongst some researchers is that because dogs are able to empathize with us, they tilt their heads as they try to filter out the words they recognize.

A fourth (and largely accepted) response is that when a dog tilts its head at you, it's actually to get a better view, because their own muzzle blocks part of what they see when they're looking at something straight on.

Sniffing You

In particular, first thing in the morning, my dogs need to sniff every inch of me. It's almost as if they forgot me overnight and need to feel me out all over again. But according to one study, dogs rely on their sense of smell and grow so familiar with the scent of their owners that it's almost like a perfume to them. When they smell it, they have an immediate emotional and physical reaction, and they want more of it.

Ever wonder why dogs like to sniff human crotches? There's a reason for that for of communication too: We have something called apocrine glands, and in humans, the areas with the highest concentrations of these glands are in the armpits and groin area. When dogs go straight for our privates and start to sniff, they're merely looking for information about who and what we are. It's the same reason they sniff the privates of other dogs.

Wagging Their Tails

Surprisingly, this one isn't as simple as we thought: A wagging tail doesn't automatically signal a happy, friendly dog. The position of the tail and the manner in which it wags also matter.

Dogs have a natural, more neural position that means they're happy and relaxed. While this differs between breeds, the position is most commonly down by their heels. A lower-than-neutral tail position indicated nervousness or submission. A higher position could mean the dog is aroused; and a vertical tail is a sign of aggression. A tail sticking straight out means that the dog is curious.

Wagging is also specific to certain emotions. Wagging to the right indicates positive emotions, and to the left is negative.

Digging Holes In The Yard

According to Cesar Millan, your dog might be trying to distract himself; but digging is also a form of exercise and natural to certain breeds, who are born diggers. Either way, this could likely be a sign of extra energy; simply giving your dog more activity could help put a stop to this behavior.

However, experts provide many other meanings behind your dog's digging, too: It could be trying to escape from something, possibly if it's scared. It could be anxious or dealing with separation anxiety. It could be lacking certain minerals, or digging for food (which is normal for certain breeds).

So, the next time you catch Spot digging, asking yourself whether he might be scared, hunger, or maybe he just misses you. (Aw.)

Chewing Shoes

The ASPCA gives a few main reasons why your dog is chewing shoes. Although it's a normal part of exploring the world around them, they could also be trying to tell you something.

If it's a puppy, they could be trying to relieve the pain of incoming teeth. In this case, you could try redirecting their attention to something else that's acceptable for them to chew. Another possible reason is separation anxiety, with the chewing being a side effect of their nervousness and distress. Your dog could also be trying to tell you that it's hungry: Maybe it's chewing because it's looking for additional nutrients.

Whining Or Whimpering

Ah, yes — the dog habit that absolutely drives me up the walls and to within an inch of my sanity. Cesar Millan says to first rule out any kind of pain or injury. Next, consider that your pooch is simply asking for a bathroom break.

But there are other possibilities. Your dog could be expressing submission (while sitting/laying in a submissive position), or they could be excited (jumping, spinning, tail wagging). In addition to these two, your dog could also be expressing anxiety, frustration, or fear.


One of my dogs is big on the licking; and I won't lie: It grosses me out a little bit. But the American Kennel Club says that they love our sweaty, salty skin. Also, how do you normally respond when your dog licks you? A lot of us reply with a hug, belly rub, or some other kind of positive reinforcement. So of course the dog will continue to do it. It wants attention! Surprisingly, licking can also be a sign of submission.