Body Language & Communication

Reading dog body language is not as easy as it looks! It's easy, however, to get clouded by preconceived notions and labels. What do I mean by "labels"? 

Dominant, bad, disobedient, angry, stubborn. 

When we use labels like this, it doesn't really tell us anything that we need to know. And...it's often incorrect. 

If a client comes to me and says "I need help - my dog is being "dominant", I have no idea how to help because that might mean something totally different from one person to the next. Is the dog peeing on people? Jumping on furniture? Growling at the kids? Guarding food? Chewing on the dining room table legs? How do I modify what I don't understand? I have to dig deeper. 

First, we have to look at the dog and describe what they're doing. This has to be observable and measurable...so those labels won't work. What works is stuff like this:

  • jumping up on person
  • rolling onto back
  • barking
  • chewing edge of stair

See how those are descriptive? That's what we're looking for. 


Next, we look at the dog's body and describe exactly what we see. This has to be observable and measurable...so those labels won't work. What works is stuff like this:

  • tail tucked
  • ears up
  • tongue hanging out
  • front paw raised
  • hackles (mohawk on neck/back) are up

See how those are descriptive? That's what we're looking for. 


Lastly, we look at context - what's happening in the environment?

  • are there dogs surrounding your pup?
  • is there a child running nearby?
  • is there a loud noise occurring? 
  • is a stranger approaching?
  • are you touching the dog?

Think about the different senses - sight, hearing, smell, vibration, taste. 


When we look at the dog, we look at a few different components so that we can see the whole picture: 

  • mouth/muzzle
  • eyes
  • ears
  • body weight / posture
  • tail 

Components Breakdown

  • EYES

  • EARS

  • TAIL

  • MOUTH

  • POSTURE

Eyes

The eyes are the window to the soul - not just for humans, but for dogs too. There is so much we can tell by our dog's eyes.

"Soft eyes" look like relaxed, gentle eye contact, relaxed facial muscles, they may hold for 1-2 seconds and then look elsewhere. The dog is relaxed and comfortable. 

A "hard stare" is one that is direct eye contact, tight muscles around the eyes, and held for longer than 2-3 seconds. The dog feels threatened and may choose to escalate to more obvious stress signals like growling, snarling, or snapping. 

"Whale eye" is when a dog's face is pointed in one direction and the eyes are pointed to the side, towards whatever it is that is threatening them. It looks like avoidance, and it is.  The dog feels threatened and may choose to escalate to more obvious stress signals like growling, snarling, or snapping. 

"Slow blinks" or "squinting" is a sign that a dog is nervous or upset, trying to avoid a confrontation. This is commonly mislabeled as "guilt", however dogs do not experience guilt as their brain does not contain the area that controls a moral compass. They do not know right from wrong - they know what works and what doesn't. 


Doggie Language: A Dog Lover's Guide to Understanding Your Best Friend

by: Lili Chin

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