Talking the same language – understanding your dog’s body language

January 06, 2017

Something I feel very passionately about is that we, as dog owners, educate ourselves so that we can read our dog and understand what they are saying to us. They obviously don’t understand our language, but they do have their very own language that they use to communicate, and they do this by using body signals and their voice. They use these body signals consciously and subconsciously to communicate intent and to try to have an effect on the behaviour of other dogs or people. This ‘doggy language’ is very often misinterpreted or, worse, completely missed, and that is where problems happen. If a dog reacts to something, be it snapping at a person or a dog for example, that behaviour very rarely comes “out of the blue”, but to owners it can seem that way. So my aim is to try to educate people to what their dog is trying to tell them. The difficulty sometimes is that the common body language signals a dog displays, are actually normal body language, but they are displayed out of context….so it is always important to look at a dog’s body language as a whole.

Below I will list some of the most important signals to look out for (in my mind) and the reasons for the dog behaving in this way:-

Appeasement & Displacement Signals

If a dog is a little uncomfortable or unsure, they may try to appease another dog or person by displaying one or more of the following behaviors:

  • muzzle and/or ear licking (of another dog)
  • jumping up
  • lowering and curving the body
  • blinking
  • clacking or exposing the teeth “(“smiling”)
  • lip licking (at a time that is not after they have eaten or drunk)
  • lowering the head and ears

In addition to appeasement, dogs also commonly use displacement signals to avoid confrontation if they are feeling stressed, uncomfortable or scared. These aim to calm the situation and provide a distraction to redirect the attention away from themselves. Examples include:-

  • Yawning (when they are not tired)
  • Sniffing the ground
  • Scratching
  • Sneezing
  • Shaking off
  • Spinning
  • Pacing

Tummy rub or fear??

One very important area I want to mention as well, is when dogs or puppies lie on their backs and expose their tummies. Often when puppies in particular roll onto their back with their legs in the air, it is greeted with “aaahhhs” and expressions of how he loves having his belly rubbed. Now of course, in some instances that absolutely is the case….but again, it is important to look at the body language of that particular dog or puppy, in that particular instance. Exposing their tummy is often another way of the dog communicating that they are not  a threat (because they are exposing the most vulnerable part of their body) and that they would like to be left alone. If your puppy lies on their back, and their body is all loose and wiggly, their tail is loose and waggy, and their mouth and face look relaxed and they are in their home environment, then it is highly likely that puppy just wants a belly rub. BUT…..if you are in a new environment, your puppy has just been approached by a strange person or dog and immediately has rolled onto their back, they are looking less than relaxed and their body is rather rigid, then the likelyhood is your puppy is not comfortable. It is therefore important to ask the person to move away, or remove your puppy from that interaction with that other dog, in order to not only make your puppy feel comfortable again, but to show them that you are someone that they can trust to remove them from a stressful situation.

Stress Signals

Under stress, dogs show behaviour designed to help relieve the stress they feel, or appease a threat. Again, these signals need to be taken in context, but it is very important to pay attention to what situation your dog displays any of these signals in. For example, if your dog always licks their lips, turns away and yawns when they are being cuddled….that is a clear sign that they are not enjoying that interaction, and you should move away. Similarly, if your dog tends to ‘freeze’ when another dog comes to say hello to them, this would be a time to call your dog away and remove them from that situation, as they are not comfortable.  Examples of stress behaviour are outlined below:-

  • Yawning (when not tired)
  • Lip licking or tongue flicking.
  • Body freezing – the dog freezes until the threat goes away or he decides to use fight or flight
  • ‘Whale Eye’ – the dog turns his head away but keeps looking at the perceived threat, showing the whites of his eyes
  • Head turn – the dog will turn his head away from a threat
  • Furrowed brow – caused by facial tension (not always easy to see in some breeds)
  • Tense jaw and mouth closed
  • Hugging – a dog will gain comfort by holding onto his owner
  • Panting (when the dog hasnt been running around)
  • Twitching whiskers – caused by facial tension
  • Shaking – caused by adrenaline release
  • Drooling
  • Lack of focus – an anxious dog finds learning difficult
  • Sweaty paws
  • Piloerection – when the hackles on the dog’s back go up

Relaxed Body Language

Although this has focused on what to look for to try and notice when your dog is stressed or worried, if you are well versed in reading your dog when they are calm and relaxed, it will then become much clearer when their state of mind is not relaxed! Below is a list of some key signs of a relaxed and happy dog:-

  • Mouth slightly open, tongue relaxed and lolling to one side.
  • If 2 dogs are playing, each dog should engage in short, mutual play breaks.
  • Play bow – this signal invites play and shows that dog is enjoying that interaction.
  • Turning over, inviting belly rub – showing trust and enjoying social contact.
  • Relaxed facial expression.
  • Squinty or blinking eyes.
  • Tail wagging fast, either side to side or in a round motion like a helicopter.
  • Wiggling backside.

But he was wagging his tail so he must have been happy, right?

Sadly not! Tail wagging is always misinterpreted. Of course, sometimes a dog will wag his tail because he is happy….but a dog will also wag his tail when he is over aroused, frustrated, overstimulated or worried. I always advise people to not pay too much attention to the tail alone, but look at it in conjunction with what the rest of the dog’s body is doing.

  • Tail held high in the air – this dog is confident or aroused
  • Tail wagging but dog is barking, has hard eyes and a tense face – dog is over aroused or frustrated and should be avoided.
  • Tail tucked between back legs or held low – this dog lacks confidence or is fearful
  • Tail held high and wagging – the dog is sussing out that situation to see if it is safe or not
  • Tail straight out and maybe curved – the dog is tense and could take offensive or defensive action
  • Helicopter wag (accompanied by loose, fluid, wiggly body movement) – we have all seen this! The dog is happy and friendly!

As you can see, dog body language is quite a complex area, and as some of the signals are so subtle, and are normal body language signals displayed in a different context, it is very easy for them to get missed. So, start watching your dog more closely in different situations……how does his body language and posture change when he is sniffing on a walk, when he interacts with dogs of different sizes and genders, when he is greeted by other people. The more you can observe your dog in different situations, the more likely you are  going to be able to spot a potential issue in the future just by ‘listening’ to what your dog is telling you before a problem happens!

Angela Doyle
Polite Paws 2017

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