Language study shows dogs talk with their bodies, not their bark

Language study shows dogs talk with their bodies, not their bark

A dog’s bark is only part of the story. A new study has found that our canine friends mostly communicate with their bodies: all the wiggles, squirms, jumps, rolls, and paw lifting mean something.

Researchers from the University of Salford in the UK have identified 47 gestures dogs use to communicate and have translated 19 of them.

Their results have been published in the science journal Animal Cognition.

Surprisingly, most of them mean “scratch me”, not “feed me” — though that is a common request.

But others communicate your dog’s desire to go outside and play.

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Here’s a quick dog-to-human dictionary to help you translate:


  • Using its snout and head to move your hand on to its body
  • Holding one paw in the air while sitting
  • Turning its head from side-to-side, looking between a human and another object
  • Standing on its hind legs
  • Using its mouth to throw a toy forwards


  • Rolling over in front of you
  • Pressing its nose against you or another object
  • Licking you or an object
  • Lifting a paw and placing it on you
  • Gently biting your arm
  • Short shuffles along the ground while rolling over
  • Lifting a back leg while laying on its side
  • Rubbing its head against you while leaning against you
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  • Briefly touching a person with a single paw
  • Diving headfirst under a person or object
  • Reaching a paw towards an object of interest
  • Wiggling its body underneath a person or object


  • Lifting both paws off the ground and placing them on its owner or a nearby object
  • Jumping up and down, either on to an object or not, while in the same location.


Any story about dogs starts a friendly argument with cat lovers about which pet is best and smartest.

Dog owners say their pets are smartest because their pet is loyal, joyous and can be trained.

Cat owners say their pets are smartest for exactly the opposite reasons.

But science tells us dogs are clearly ahead when it comes to brain power.

Dogs have about 530 million neurons — nerve cells — controlling their behaviour in the grey, folded part of their brain called the cerebral cortex, compared to only 250 million in cats.

“I believe the absolute number of neurons an animal has, especially in the cerebral cortex, determines the richness of their internal mental* state and their ability to predict what is about to happen in their environment based on past experience,” neuroscientist* Suzana Herculano-Houzel from Vanderbilt University in the US said.

Dogs had the most neurons of any carnivore — even though they didn’t have the biggest brains. Brown bears had roughly the same number as cats.

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“Our findings mean to me that dogs have the biological capability of doing much more complex and flexible things with their lives than cats can,” she said.

If only we could understand what cats thought about that study. If they could read this story, they’d probably say something like: “It’s not how many neurons you have, it’s how you use them.” We’ll have to wait for the cat dictionary.

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Show your support


Certainly, For all creatures great and small. Support the RSPCA. Most noteworthy, the RSPCA’s policies are underpinned by the science of animal welfare.

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If you have found an animal and it semms like they may be stray or lost, please contact AAPS on 9798 8415 for advice. Certainly, the animal has the best chance of returning home if it remains in the area that it was found.

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