Animal Communication: Understanding Your Senior Dog by Ann-Marie Fleming

14 June, 2019

Have you ever wondered what your dog is thinking when his ears perk up? Or what’s going through her mind when she has her tail between her legs? One of the trickiest parts of dog ownership is trying to figure out what our dogs’ sounds and behaviours mean. But learning how your pup communicates is important for their quality of life, especially as they reach their senior years.

At Dog Quality, we know that knowing what your dog wants and needs is not as easy as simply feeding and walking them every day. It takes patience, commitment and love to get to know your dog on a deeper level. As experts in senior dog care, Dog Quality is here to help you overcome the language barrier between you and your furry family members. After all, our mission is to provide hope and happiness to senior dogs and to meet their needs as they age.

If your senior dog’s behaviour is a little out of the ordinary, he may be trying to tell you something. Here’s how your dog communicates differently than you and common signs to look out for.

Little senior dog walking in the rain

How dogs communicate

Every dog owner knows how to communicate with their pup by simply telling them what to do. But while we rely mostly on verbal cues to get our dogs to do certain things — for example, saying “sit” or “heel” — dogs have a different way to tell us what they need.

Just because your dog can’t talk doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a lot to say. Your pup has his own unique ways to communicate, mostly through non-verbal cues and body language. You can learn a lot from how your dog carries himself, from how he holds his tail to where he places his ears. Dog communication is as complex as human communication, it just takes time to figure it out.

Learning how your dog communicates isn’t just helpful in building a strong relationship with your fur baby — it’s absolutely critical to your dog’s well being. Imagine being sick or in pain and not being able to verbally tell someone about your discomfort. This is what it’s like to be a dog (or any animal for that matter), and this becomes even more difficult in your dog’s senior years when he’s more likely to have health problems.

All our dogs can do is try to convey what they’re feeling by moving a certain way or whining, and hope that we catch on to the fact that something’s wrong. The least we can do as senior dog owners is take the time to understand their behaviours so we can support them as best we can. When it comes to communication, senior dogs deserve just as much patience and understanding as aging humans.

Senior dog in a boat with life jacket

What your dog is trying to tell you

When trying to decipher what your senior dog’s body language is saying, it’s important to look at the entire dog, not just her tail, ears or mouth. You also need to assess the context or situation that’s causing your dog distress. For example, a dog who is baring her teeth isn’t necessarily an angry dog — she may just have a quirky smile. Likewise, a wagging tail doesn’t always indicate a happy dog. If her ears are pulled back and she’s growling, there’s likely something else going on.

As our dogs age, they’ll begin to encounter health and mobility issues that they aren’t used to. This can cause physical pain, as well as emotional stress. Here are some common signs your senior dog is experiencing some sort of discomfort.

Stiff Tail Wagging

As your dog gets older, he may develop arthritis in his joints. If his tail has become more stiff as he wags, it may be a sign that he’s in pain.

Flattened Ears

When younger dogs feel threatened, their ears will often appear higher or point forward as they try to make themselves look bigger. Senior dogs, on the other hand, will try to make themselves as small as possible by flattening their ears back against their head. If your dog is doing this, it could mean she’s afraid or in pain.

Eyes that Look Smaller or Larger than Normal

One of the keys to understanding your dog’s body language is knowing how your dog acts under normal circumstances, when he’s happy and relaxed. That’s the only way you’ll know when his behaviour shifts, indicating that something is wrong. If your dog’s eyes appear smaller or larger than usual, or if he’s squinting, he may be trying to tell you he’s stressed or uncomfortable.

Excessive shedding

While not really a behaviour, shedding is a clear sign that your dog is under stress. This could be from pain or frustration, or your dog may be frightened.

Reduced Playtime

Just like people, senior dogs have less energy as they age. Naturally, your pup may be too tired to sustain the same level of activity or play as he used to. But if your dog is actively avoiding playtime, it could be a sign of a deeper problem like arthritis. If your senior dog is in pain, his play bow (when his rear end is up and his head is lowered) may also not be as low as usual.


Panting doesn’t always mean your dog is thirsty or out of breath. If your dog is panting excessively, or panting when she hasn’t been exercising, it could be a sign of pain or discomfort.


While dogs mostly communicate with non-verbal cues, they also rely on barking to “speak” with their owners. If your dog is usually quiet and rarely barks, an increase in barking could mean she isn’t feeling well. If she’s whining, then there may also be a cause for concern.

The best thing you can do for your dog is to pay attention to his or her verbal and non-verbal cues, acknowledge when something doesn’t seem right and act accordingly. If your senior dog is exhibiting any of the above behaviours, make an appointment with your veterinarian as soon as possible. Even if there’s nothing wrong, you (and your dog) will at least have peace of mind. And if there is an underlying health concern, you’ll be prepared to help your dog get back to feeling her best.

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