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Pets General

How Do Animals Communicate

Val Cairney June 30, 2023 24

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Hi everyone and thank you for joining me on this episode of Val Talk’s Pets.  After my last episode’s interview with animal communicator Joan Ranquet, I was thinking more about animal communication and how do animals communicate with us.  When you think about it, they communicate with us on a daily basis.  How else would we know if they wanted out, were hungry, wanted to play, were down or in pain?  Obviously our animals are communicating with us in a way they know they will get their desire across to us.  

According to, “There are many ways that animals communicate, including through visual signals, auditory signals, touch, and chemicals.”  Let’s look at communicating with dogs.  We train dogs to learn a language that communicates our desire to them.  For example, we train dogs to respond to verbal commands, auditory signals like a whistle or clicker and hand gestures.  According to, “The canine ability to comprehend human body language and intonation is amazing.  Our dogs know more than just Sit, Stay or Walk.  They can learn the meaning of many words and can grasp that meaning even better when we say those words in an appropriate tone.”  I think we can all attest to the fact that a knows exactly when he has done something wrong by the way we use our voice and the tone just as he knows he is a good boy by the way we use our voice and tone. 

According to, “a recent study concluded that there are 19 different signals that dogs use to talk to us.  These signals are referred to as “referential signaling” which for example, is the way babies communicate with their parents. It is also the way great apes communicate with each other.  Referential signaling is rare among non-primates.” We know that dogs can communicate with their tails.  A tucked under tail is usually fear and a held high tail means happiness and confidence.  A wagging tail is often thought to be a sign of happiness and an invitation to petting.  But, a wagging tail can also be a false sign as sometimes dog’s wag their tail when stressed and may not react well if approached or petted.  Ears can be a real good sign of communication.  The obvious pinned ears, laid back are a sign not to approach as the dog is experiencing fear, being uncomfortable or angry.  A dog with perky ears may be interested in something or expressing happiness.  And of course a dog with wide eyes showing the whites is most likely fearful but a dog with soft half closed eyes is probably enjoying that belly rub.  And as points out, dogs can smile.  A dog with soft eyes and forward ears can definitely smile to let you know how happy and content they are.  A dog however, with bared teeth, is definitely a dog to be careful with.  One of the harder signals to determine in dogs is yawning. 

As, points out, you need to interpret the yawn by context.  Sometimes a yawn is exactly what we think, I’m tired, or I’m bored.  But as a lot of us who work with animals know, yawning can be a sign of stress or anxiety.  And then sometimes, when they know something fun is coming like heading to the dog park, they will yawn then as well.  So, knowing your dog with this one is important as it is a signal that is very dependent on context.

Let’s take a look now at a dog communication that seems everyone has seen on YouTube or Tik Tok, and that is the dog that learned to communicate by pressing buttons on the floor assigned to different words. talked about Christina Hunger’s research on this with her dog Stella.  In this exercise used by others as well, the dog is taught which buttons correspond to things they may want, like water or to go out.  The “button dogs’ ‘ as they are called, has controversy.  Here’s an example from The Washington Post

A woman by the name of Sascha Crasnow and her dog Parker were featured, where “her dog recently coined a new term for ambulance, after spotting one parked outside, by pressing the buttons “squeaker” and then “car” she says.  During a visit from Crasnow’s father, the dog asked his name by using three buttons: “what,” “word” and “human”.  I’ve seen these button dogs onYoTube and they are pretty convincing.  However some “animal behavior experts (raise) questions about what the dogs are really “saying” and whether the words mean the same thing to a dog as they do to us.”  A postdoctoral fellow at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said “If a dog hits the button “love” maybe what it means to the dog is: “when I hit this button, I get pets, or everyone says my name.”  There is a rather large study underway at the University of California at San Diego, with at least 2000 button dogs that can be relied upon being filmed 24/7 with data being submitted regularly.  So far, the scientist have said, “..we now have compelling evidence that for several dogs in our study, the button presses are not random.”  Some of the controversy surrounds the idea that dogs are already communicating with us through body language and button pushing does not indicate that the dog is using language the same way humans do. 

Others believe that “if it allows owners to interact and better understand their dogs, this is great!” I would love to have a dog that is proficient in button pushing.  Who knows what you would find out?  We have got to the point where we can get Tundra to put his toys away or to bed as we say.  We are getting some success getting him to go to the specific toy that we say.  He has a bunch of stuffies, big ones, and he uses these to communicate to us that he wants to go out.  We did not teach him this.  He may have already had this cue in his repertoire, which I doubt, because I don’t think as a community dog he had toys, or he figured this out on his own.  His very first stuffed toy that I gave him was a little bear with a tartan scarf we named George.  Tundra loved George and still does despite his multiple times in the washing machine.  So what Tundra figured out to do to signal to us that he wanted to go out, was to pick up George and then walk back and forth in front of us with George.  At first we tried to figure out what he wanted and the obvious one was, “do you want to go out?” So seven years later and an accumulation of various stuffies, he still does this.  For this reason, we get a pile of stuffies at the back door as we take whichever one out of his mouth at the door.  We started to teach him to put his toys to bed, so take them back to where he got them.  We have been working on him identifying each toy by a name.  So far, not too bad. We’ll say go get Snoopy, or go get bunny and we get I would say 3 out of 5 accuracy.  So, that’s pretty good.  But, it also means that he can associate a specific word to an object.  The button dogs go that much further by hitting buttons that express feelings or wants.  So, whether you believe it or not, it’s quite fascinating to watch and if it means more communication with your dog, then why not? 

As for cats, they too have entered the world of talking buttons.  Just like dogs, cats can be taught how to communicate with buttons and there are kits and videos to help someone teach their cat to communicate with buttons.  I find this quite interesting because cats do not have the same cue or command communication that dogs do, like sit, stay and come.  I wonder if we are getting an even more organic response with cats.  I don’t know.  You can button train cats to the basics like dogs which are hungry, water, out, for example.  But, I find that if Rory wants out, he goes to the door and meows.  I don’t need him to push a button to know he wants out.  But, what if he is in pain or uncomfortable?  Could he push a button cognitively to let me know he has an ache?  Hmmm??  In the scheme of things, cats communicate like dogs through body language, vocals and facial expressions.  If a cat is frightened or scared or had enough, they hiss or even bite.  If they are happy they have their tail up and eyes are open and relaxed.  If they are loving their chin scratch their eyes may be closed or half closed.  Cats get to growl like dogs to warn off people or dogs or other cats and they get to purr.  Usually a cat will purr to show it is enjoying something, but some cats will purr when they are unsure or have some anxiety just like a dog wagging its tail.  And speaking of tails, an angry cat can certainly swish that tail, so look out.  

All of these things with dogs and cats show us that there is a style of communication with our animals.  The next level is whether they are communicating to us all the time, but unfortunately we just haven’t learned that language.  If animals can communicate with other animals and we certainly don’t hear them then the question begs, are they using some kind of communication that we just don’t know? We know through research that animals communicate with other animals through different methods to communicate where food is or danger.  The question is whether dogs for example learn to communicate with their cat siblings the same way as they do with humans.  Do dogs watch a cat’s body language or listen to their meows?  Do cats look at a dog’s body language or listen to the dog’s bark?  More than likely they do.  If we call Tundra in from the property and he comes running and Rory is outside too, he will often run as well, probably thinking something is up and he trusts his friend so he better run too.  But, I want to know about the silent communication;  where they are face to face looking at each other and I just know, they are sharing something.  What?  Are they telepathically transferring pictures to each other to show some point of interest or express something?  Rory loves to come in from outside and go straight to Tundra and press his head against his nose.  Why does he do this?  I think he is communicating, “hey buddy, I’m back inside, we’re together again.”  Tundra will nuzzle back but what is interesting is, if he sees us watching the encounter, Tundra will look up and pretend it’s not happening.  It’s almost like he’s embarrassed to be caught talking to the cat.  There has to be some kind of communication going on.  We know that dolphins and whales communicate through clicks and songs to communicate with each other.  We know this because we can actually hear the communication so it fits our understanding of communication.  But, it’s the silent communication that seems to baffle us humans.  And that leads to the idea of animal communication by opening the channel that will allow the form of communication to flow into our senses to pick up what the animal wants us to know. 

I mentioned in my interview with Joan Ranquet that at one time we had an animal communicator come to our barn to have a session with our horses.  Each horse owner stood with the communicator and their horse and we enlisted a scribe to make notes of what was being said. There were things said to me that I had no point of reference to, but that could have been info from before I had my horse.  But there were some things that she said that were quite eye raising.  I had been at that point looking to move to another space, mostly to cut costs.  I didn’t mention this to anyone because nothing was sorted at that point, but I was actively looking at other facilities and options.  The communicator said she wanted to talk to me in private away from the other owners.  We went outside and she said, he is worried that he is going to have to go somewhere and he’ll be alone because you won’t be there.  She asked me, “Are you looking to move from here?”  Believe me, I was very taken aback.  I told her that yes, I was looking to move, but nothing was set.  She said, “Okay, I’ll tell him that he may be moving but you are going together and he won’t be alone, you will be with him.”  Well I can tell you that was pretty interesting because I can assure you, no one knew anything about this.  And she also said some other things that again was info only I knew.  So, I certainly found the experience eye opening.  Perhaps if we can quiet our minds and open ourselves to a different form of communication as Joan said, we can find insight into our pets that we never would have thought about or knew existed. 

The idea that animals communicate on another level is not new.  Look at all the hero animals I talked about in film and TV that had the ability to suss out the bad guys and then figure out the best way to let the humans know what was going on.  This whole scenario is based on the hope that there is an intelligence to animals and a communication that may just be higher than ourselves.  We certainly know that our pets are communicating to us through a method they have found that works, vocals, body language and expressions.  Perhaps the button dogs and cats are opening a door to a whole new level and thank goodness this is being researched with experts in the science field.  And maybe we can find that avenue to a deeper communication with our pets by employing ancient practices like meditation to tap into what our animals are thinking.  It sure is fascinating.  Just imagine if you could find out that your dog actually knows that the food he is eating is the reason he has ear infections, or she really prefers her bed in a certain spot.  It really is endless.  The next time your dog is staring at you, maybe he or she is trying to tell you something, quiet your mind and see if you get a message.  You never know what you may find out, it’s worth a try because as I say, knowing is caring. 

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Val Cairney

Hi everyone, and welcome to Val Talk’s Pets, the forum for pet parents and enthusiasts alike. So, I have been working in the pet industry now for almost 10 years and, on a daily basis, I handle a lot of issues and questions arising from pet parents. I am not a veterinarian but I do have certifications in Canine, Feline, Small Animal, Fish and Herptile and Avian Health and Nutrition from the University of California, Davis Extension, the Vet College.

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