Understanding Dog Body Language
A wagging tails means a happy dog, right?
Panting equals smiling, correct?
Our perception of canine body language is not always accurate. Their communication is much more complex than simply being happy or not. If we can learn to understand their signals we can not only tell if they feel content, but also if they want to appear cute, are threatened or might feel nauseous.
Whether you are training a new puppy or you have an older dog, it always pays off to learn more about canine body language. It is the prime means of communications for dogs. They have an intricate system of cues and body positions and by learning to understand them we learn to understand our dogs better as well.
Body Language – An Inbuilt Safety System
Being able to communicate an array of feelings through their body language is an inbuilt safety system for dogs. As social animals that together (both with us humans and with other dogs) they are dependent on a consistent and intact group structure.
If every quarrel or dismay would end in a physical confrontation, the social groups of dogs would fall apart quickly. Their intricate system of body language is able to communicate discomfort long before any escalation.
On the other hand, it also functions well to convey friendship and contentment! Dogs communicate in a very detailed way through the way they are moving their ears, eyes, tails and body.
A common misconception is that a wagging tails equals a happy dogs. This is wrong and a misinterpretation that has caused many bite incidents!
Tail wagging in itself only conveys excitement. This can be positive excitement, such as a dog being happy that his owner just came back from work. It can however also be an expression of stress.
A low, quickly wagging tail
Dogs that are greeting other dogs or humans with a low tail set and quickly wagging tail come with friendly intentions. This gesture communicates friendliness and submission. A dog whose tail is wagging fast and low comes in the hopes of making friends.
A high, quickly wagging tail
A tail that stands straight up in the air and wags can however mean the opposite. If your dog greets another dog or human with a tail set like this he might feel unhappy enough that an escalation is about to happen. If you see a dog with a rigid tail that goes vertically up in the air, retreat.
A tail the wags from side to side slowly
A slow wagging, medium high tail communicates relaxation, comfort and contentment. We see this for example in dogs who are happy and calm at home or other familiar environments or dogs that have taken up a scent trial with their nose that they are following.
Whale eyes describes the effect of seeing the white part in a dog’s eyes if the dog opens them widely. It is nearly always a sign of stress and anxiety. If you see a dog showing whale eyes, do not approach him anymore and back off with what you were doing.
Soft eyes look like the dog is squinting. Dogs do this for several reasons:
It can mean that your dog is very comfortable cuddling with you and is closing them partially both in an enjoyment and an attempt to look small and non-threatening. Dogs that show soft eyes tend to avoid straight eye contact.
Ears are an extremely expressive part of your dog. Ears of wild species are prick, meaning they stand up. This serves the purpose of letting them appear taller and more imposing if needed as well as maximizing the range of picking up sounds.
When we domesticated dogs, ears were one of the first body parts to change (without any specific breeding intentions, it happens on its own).
Floppy ears are perceived as much cuter and more docile than prick ears.
But even in dog breeds that still have prick ears (such as a German Shepherd Dog), there is plenty of body language to be found that communicates peacefulness through the ear set.
Ears Up and Forward
If your dog’s ears are erect and turned to the front he is alert. This can mean several things: perhaps he is just waiting for you to start playing ball with him. He could be listening to a noise he heard to decide whether or not it is a threat. Or he might be aggravated by a different dog and ready to show him who’s boss!
If your dog’s ears are up and forward, check to see what is it that caught his attention.
Ears Back and Low
On the other hand, if your dog’s ears are pinned close to the head and back he is trying to be less imposing and threatening.
He could be enjoying a moment of cuddles with your or meeting a small kid. Often dogs make themselves very small when meeting kids to not scare them!
Your dog may however also be feeling uncomfortable and trying to escape the situation by looking small. At the vet’s office for example you might see him with his ears back and low.
Yawning can be a stress signal and displacement behavior. While dogs show yawns just like we do when they are tired and ready to sleep or have just woken up, they also make use of them when they feel anxious.
You can often see dogs yawning in situations in which they are unsure or uncomfortable, eg when they are in an obedience class with many other dogs or at the vet.
If you see your dog yawning and he has not just slept/is getting ready to sleep, find out what’s bothering him!
Panting has several meanings.
Of course dogs pant due to the fact that they cannot sweat and need to regulate their body temperature.
If a dog pants when he should not be hot however, he might be unhappy.
Dogs that exhibit car sickness often pant before vomiting. If your dog pants (and drools) during a car ride, watch out for his nausea.
Showing teeth and growling is a way for dogs to deescalate situations without a bite. If a dog feels bothered (but not so much that he would attack yet), he will raise his lips to show his teeth. It is the canine way of saying “Look, this is what I have, I don’t want to use it but I will if you don’t back off!”
Lip licking is a signal this is easily missed as it happens so quickly. Whenever your dog is in a situation in which you expect he might be uncomfortable, such as greeting other dogs or heading into the vet’s office, watch our for a swift lip lick. It is a calming signal and tells you that your dog is uncomfortable.
We have all seen the raised hackles of a dog who is aggravated. Again the purpose of this signal is to make themselves larger.
Depending on just how stressed the dog is, his hair might stand up only between his shoulder blades – or all the way down his back and even on his tail!
If your dog raises his hackles, find out what’s bothering him and how you can help him feel more comfortable.
If Your Dog Is Showing Stress
If your dog is showing you a body language that translates to him being stressed your number one goal is to make him more comfortable. Especially in situations that you know might be stressful for your dog, pay attention to his body posture and facial expressions.
No matter what you were doing in the moment in which he started to give your whale eyes or pin his ears flat to his head, you should abandon what we were going and help your dog remove himself from the situation and into a happier emotional state.
That means that if for example your dog breaks a stay in a group class and appears to be obviously stressed by the other dogs, your first action should not be to put him back into his position and ask for another stay. Instead, bring enough distance between you and the other dogs so that he can hold his stay comfortably without being worried about getting too close to dogs that he might not like or even fear.
If Your Dog Is Showing Happiness
Does your dog’s body language tell you that he is happy and content? Maybe even exuberant, as he shows a play bow to you or another dog and his tongue is rolling out of his mouth in excitement? Great! The more joyful interactions your dog can have, the more he will associate the fun with you and everything around.
Especially for dogs that have had negative experiences or a traumatic past, it is important to create settings in which they can be as relaxed and happy as possible. Once you find out what kind of activities your dog enjoys, provide them for him as often as possible (ideally daily) so he can learn to trust you and the world in general.
Here are some ideas:
Just like people, many dogs like a good massage. Run your hands across your dog’s body in long strokes. Dogs especially enjoy this on their back and shoulders. Watch your dog’s body language for signs of relaxation. If he appears tense, suddenly starts panting or shows you Whale Eyes, change your massage.
The more often you massage your dog, the more in tune you will be with his physical and mental wellbeing.
Dogs love a game of fetch! For some stressed dogs, playing fetch is a great way to release all tension and have fun with no strings attached. I have seen many reactive dogs being able to “let go” of all ill feelings and just enjoy themselves during a game of frisbee or Chuck-it.
I like to play a variety of food games with my dogs. It starts out very easy with just chasing pieces of food rolling on the ground, chasing me with food or racing to a bowl of food. Later on we advance to running past food to get to me or even calling off of a bowl with food. Our online classes offers a variety of games for every dog!