Though still not well-understood, canine communication is beginning to become less mysterious to the people charged with studying dog behavior. The result is a wealth of new information for everyone from the casual dog owner to professional dog trainers. Because dogs do seem to communicate with one another in very defined, specific ways, animal behaviorists have gathered information on these patterns, and have some good ideas about what dogs mean when they do certain things. Being familiar with several of the more notable communication methods that dogs use can help a pet owner understand his or her pet much better, ultimately leading to a more enjoyable relationship with one's dog.
The Play Bow
One of the most obvious means of communicating for dogs, the 'play bow' is an indication that your dog wants to play, or thinks that you are ready to play with him. Quite simply, your dog will leave his hind legs upright while placing his front legs flat on the ground. The result is what looks like a 'bow', and is a sure sign that your pup is ready to play.
It is often misunderstood among dog owners that when a dog sneezes, it is only rarely the result of his nose being irritated or an illness. Rather, a dog will most often sneeze when he is very excited and happy about what is happening. You may have noticed that, while playing, your dog is caught with a minor sneezing fit. This means, simply, that he's happy with you and with life in general.
Often misunderstood, tail wagging can mean several things. It is not entirely understood what is meant when a dog is holding his tail high in the air and wagging it, but it is not the friendly gesture that one would presume it to be. Rather, a tail held high and wagging lightly is a gesture that is more pensive, and a potentially aggressive behavior. Dog attacks have actually been observed immediately after a high-held tail.
A tail that wags more aggressively, however, typically means contentment or happiness, and is generally easy to distinguish from the less obvious, and less benign version. It should be noted that when a dog holds his tail low and wags it aggressively―so much so that his entire butt is wagging back and forth―this is a surefire sign that he's quite pleased.
Sometimes, your dog will yawn when you do, just as yawns are 'contagious' between people, they are between you and your dog as well. Sometimes, a yawn means your dog is tired. However, a dog will also yawn when faced with a situation he does not quite understand, and when he is not entirely certain how he is supposed to act. If you bring your dog into a new situation―including meeting new people, going to a strange place, or meeting other dogs―you may notice him yawning multiple times. This most likely does not mean that your dog is tired, but rather, not entirely comfortable.
The Whale Eye
Unlike the tail wag, which can mean a variety of things and occasionally is a bad sign, the so-called 'whale eye' is never a good thing. This is when you can see the white of your dog's eye clearly. It is typically combined with a 'freeze', where the dog is perfectly still. It is a split second in time when the dog's movement stops entirely, and is said to be more easily 'sensed' or "felt" than actually seen. Anyone who has experienced the freeze/whale eye knows it. But if you see your dog do this, it means that he is terribly displeased, has been pushed to the limit of what he can take, and his next action will probably be aggressive or violent.
Though these are all fairly common things for dogs to do, understanding what each of them means can go a long way to understanding your dog's thoughts and moods, as well as discerning his level of comfort or discomfort in new situations. For new dog owners, this is especially valuable information.