How to read your Dog’s Body Language

Dogs may not be able to talk, but they can still communicate their emotions through a wide range of actions and expressions using their bodies. To accurately understand a dog’s body language, you should sum up all the other separate physical cues. In different situations, similar signals have different meanings, so vocal signals and the body’s position help you understand your dog’s emotional state and intent. 

Why should you learn a dog’s body language?

1. Helps you confidently make choices for your dog

A clear understanding of your canine’s body language gives you insight into how they feel, allowing you to be their advocate. The ability to evaluate how your dog is coping with an interaction or situation helps you back up what your canine is communicating based on your knowledge and observations.

2. Build a stronger and healthier relationship.

Much of what dogs communicate goes unnoticed by their owners, as they are not aware of the silent, deliberate cues dogs express through their body language and signals. We only pay attention to the louder language that escalates after the silent body language hasn’t been deciphered. Many dogs appear fine even when their body language is being ignored, which is a testament to their good nature.

3. The emotional well-being of your dog

The freedom to make choices plays a critical role in emotional and mental well-being. Most dogs live with many expectations on how to behave but very few choices. Being attentive to your dog and allowing them to have influence over their surroundings helps build confidence and emotional well-being. Allowing your dog to communicate and influence their immediate environment also helps with their problem-solving abilities.

4. Nurturing your dog’s communication skills

When humans ignore subtle dog body language, it imparts that it is futile to communicate politely. When ignored, dogs learn how to communicate using louder body language that seemingly gains more attention, such as snapping, showing teeth, and growling. If your dog tends to use loud body language such as growling, they shouldn’t be punished because they are trying to communicate before, resulting in violent means. In order to nurture and hone your dog’s communications skills, it is important to understand canine communication.

5. Minimize stress and misunderstanding

Knowledge is power; it opens our eyes to things around us in a new light. Without it, we misunderstand ideas and instances that lead to misunderstandings and frustration. A great example is when during a walk, your dog starts sniffing around. Many owners will deem their dogs stubborn, but it could be displacement or a calming technique for your dog due to a situation or something ahead that is making them uncomfortable. An understanding of the situation and the reasons behind it introduces a new perspective and encourages empathy, helping owners find a solution for their dogs in particular situations.

6. Creating a supportive environment that builds confidence and trust

Good communication cements a trust-based relationship where your dog sees you as a supportive partner who is on their side. Paying attention to your dog as they communicate enables them to express themselves in a positive manner successfully and eliminates helplessness. Listening and understanding the behavior behind your dog’s behavior is more effective in your interactions rather than focusing on controlling or stopping your dog from behaving in a certain way.

Here are some of dog’s body languages explained:

The language of a dog’s ears

Dog’s ears are very expressive, and despite their size, they express a lot of emotion. Calm and content dogs tend to have relaxed ears. When a dog is alert, feeling dominant or aggressive, they will raise their ears high and point them in the direction of interest. If a dog’s ears are flat against the head, it shows that they are worried, fearful, or being submissive.

The language of a dog’s eyes

As a wise man once said, eyes are the windows to the soul. Your dog’s eyes can tell you how they feel. When your dog is feeling relaxed, they will have relaxed eyes or soft eyes. A direct stare indicates that your dog is feeling threatened or wants to assert dominance. If your dog averts their eyes, they either are worried about interacting with you or want to show submission. A dog with large pupils or one that is looking at you from the corner of their eyes is displaying fear or aggression.

The language of a dog’s mouth

Other than hunger, a dog’s mouth can relay many emotions. A relaxed, soft mouth that looks like a grin shows that your dog is relaxed. If your dog is tense or anxious, their mouth will be tight and their lips tensed up. A curled lip that displays teeth is often a sign of aggression, while in some breeds like Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, it is a smile. An easy way to clearly determine whether your dog is displaying aggression or a smile is to observe other signs such as the ears and the accompanying vocalization.

A dog flicking their tongue or licking their nose indicates unease or uncertainty, while yawning helps them calm down and lower blood pressure.

The language of a dog’s tail

Tail wagging is often a misinterpreted body language in dogs. Most people assume that a dog wagging its tail is happy, which is often true, but dogs also wag their tails when they are frustrated, aroused, and overstimulated. 

When observing your dog’s tail, there are two things to keep an eye out for; how the tail is moving and its position. A relaxed dog holds its tail in a neutral position below the spine level or extending out of the spine. When excited, a dog will hold their tail high and wag it quickly from side to side. If your dog is nervous or cautious, their tail will be straight out, and they will wag it in a slow, steady manner. A fearful dog tucks its tail between its legs while an alert dog will have it’s tail erect.

Discomfort/ stress or nervous body language

When dogs are stressed or nervous, they tend to adopt body language that helps them relieve the stress or pacify the threat. Unlike humans, dogs do not yawn when they are tired; they do so when they feel nervous. Lip licking is a sign of hunger but also a sign of stress when your dog is experiencing fear or is feeling nervous.

Here are some signs that your dog is stressed or nervous:

  • Brief body freezing – your dog is very still for a few seconds before reacting
  • Yawning is a sign your dog is exhausted, but it also signifies stress
  • Tongue flicking or lip licking 
  • ‘Whale eye’ – your dog turns its head away from the perceived threat with the whites of their eyes showing
  • Head turn – your dog will turn their head away from the source of fear
  • Furrowed brow and curved eyebrows
  • A tense jaw
  • Carrying their tail low
  • A curved tongue
  • Dry, raspy panting – a nervous state reduces the production of saliva
  • Twitchy whiskers
  • Drooling 
  • Lack of focus
  • Sweaty paws
  • The hair on the back of a dog’s spine and neck stand on end

Deference body language or appeasement

Deference language is designed to avoid injury or soften a perceived threat. When a dog behaves in a non-threatening way, it helps lessen the negative intentions of the threat. Appeasing behavior is very submissive such as a dog lowering their body to make it look smaller and less imposing.

Other forms of appeasing body language include:

  • Lowering the head
  • Head-turning
  • Averting eyes
  • Lip licking
  • Carrying the tail low
  • Lowered or curved body language
  • A stomach flip – your canine will flip over fast on their back, exposing their tummy. This signifies withdrawal from interactions. 

Displacement Body Language

Dogs use displacement body language to refocus and calm themselves. If a perceived threat is approaching your dog, causing them to be nervous, they will indulge in behaviors that redirect the threat’s focus away from a potentially negative interaction. Such behaviors include sniffing the ground and scratching. These behaviors act as an outlet for frustration or pent up energy and may become compulsive if an outlet isn’t available. Other displacement behaviors include:

  • Shaking
  • Sneezing
  • Yawning
  • Nose licking
  • Pacing
  • Sniffing
  • Chattering teeth
  • Shake off – a dog shaking their body as if getting water off their back.

Anticipatory or curious body language

Naturally, dogs are curious creatures, and when they are more confident, they can handle change and novelty. Dogs will analyze a situation first to ensure their safety before engaging. Here is the body language they use to display anticipatory body language:

  • Lifting the front paw
  • Cocking the head to one side 
  • Closed mouth

Defensive and offensive language

Dogs demonstrate defensive or offensive body language to defend themselves against the threat, whether actual or perceived. This body language presents itself in ways that encourage the threat to keep a distance. If the threat doesn’t back away, your dog will result in offensive body language. Offensive and defensive body language is easy to recognize and is displayed in the following ways:

  • Tense mouth
  • Lips pushed forward and trembling as your dog growls
  • Air snapping
  • Snapping with skin contact
  • Body leaning forward
  • Fast nip – This is an immediate bite and releases with bruising
  • Bite and hold 
  • Bite, hold and shake
  • Hard staring
  • Wagging the tail

Arousal or excitement body language

Dogs display high arousal or excitement in response to a stimulus that the dog likes, such as a toy, person, or other pet. Arousal is also dependent on other factors such as confinement, age, personality, and a lack of a physical and mental outlet.

Behaviors that display excitement or arousal include:

  • Play bow – rear end in the air while the front end is lowered
  • Jumping
  • Mounting
  • Softly mouthing
  • Pilo-erect – fur on their back and neck stands on edge
  • Small body freezes during play

Arousal behaviors, however, can also be a sign of an unfavorable stimulus such as an unwanted situation, person, or another pet. In such an instance, it may also be coupled with fear signals.

They include:

  • Lunging
  • Pacing
  • Spinning
  • Stiffly wagging tail
  • Hard mouthing

Relaxed Language

A happy dog is every pet owner’s dream. A relaxed dog communicates confidence, joy, and a desire to invite play and attention. Here is a list of signs that show your dog is relaxed and happy:

  • Slightly open mouth, a relaxed tongue, and lolling to one side
  • Relaxed facial expression
  • Blinky, squinty or soft eyes
  • Fast tail wagging
  • Wiggling backside
  • Lie down in a ‘frog leg’ position

A dog’s body language involves a combination of different signals to communicate intentions and emotions. It is important to read every signal from the shape of the eyes to its hackles. Remember that your dog is always ‘talking’ to you, so keep a close eye on what they are trying to communicate. Learning to understand how your dog communicates helps nurture a strong bond of trust and respect. It also helps prevent problems during interaction before they occur.

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