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

Jamie Seidel, June 20, 2018 8:17AM News Corp Australia

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Henri, 11, collects tennis balls. Picture: Tait Schmaal media_cameraHenri, 11, collects tennis balls. Picture: Tait Schmaal


Reading level: green

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.

dog leather leash media_cameraDogs can communicate by their actions. Picture: supplied

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
Dogs media_cameraStela knows by reading Bomber’s actions that he wants to play. Picture: AAP


  • 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.

media_cameraCat lovers say their pets are smarter than dogs. This is smart cat Abigall of Strong and Gentle at an international dog and cat exhibition in Germany last weekend. Picture: AP

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.

media_cameraVada (pugalier), Maddy (mini groodle), Macie (cavoodle), Susie (Maltese cross) and Hugo (schmoodle) each have about 530 million nerve cells in the cerebral cortex part of their brains. Picture: supplied

“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.

ANOTHER STORY ABOUT A DOG: Special police medal for hero dog Max


canine: dog

identified: found or showed

gestures: actions

mental: to do with the brain and it’s thoughts and feelings

neuroscientist: brain scientist

carnivore: meat eater

WE COMMUNICATE WITH GESTURES TOO: Real reason why we have eyebrows



1. What do most of the communications translated mean?

2. What could a dog mean when it gently bites your arm?

3. Name two ways a dog could ask you to open the door.

4. What is the cerebral cortex?

5. How many brain neurons do brown bears have?


Listen to Me!

After reading the Kids News story on how dogs communicate with their bodies, choose a partner to work with. Have the Kids News story in front of you both. One person is to get down on all fours like a dog and perform some of these actions. It’s up to your partner to interpret what you are trying to tell them. Do 3-4 actions and then swap roles with your partner.

Extension: Write a paragraph explaining why you believe cats or dogs are smarter and use some of the evidence in the article to support your arguments.

Time: Allow 20 minutes

Curriculum links: Drama, English


With a partner see if you can you identify all the doing words/verbs in this text. Highlight them in yellow and then make a list of them all down your page. Now see if you and your partner can come up with a synonym for the chosen verb. Make sure it still makes sense in the context it was taken from.

Try to replace some of the original verbs with your synonyms and discuss if any are better and why.

Curriculum Links: English, Big Write and VCOP

QUESTION: Can you think of ways humans use gestures and body language to communicate? Give some examples you have noticed and what you think they mean.

Extra Reading in animals