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. 

Ears

Dog’s ears can be hard to read at times since breeds can really have a variety of natural ear carriages. Some are tall and pointy, some are low and floppy, some have their ears cropped, making them impossible to read, 

Generally speaking, the ears will point in the direction the dog wants to go.

Forward – they may be focused on something and eager to get closer.

Backward and tight to the head – they may be fearful or nervous, wanting to get away. 

Low – they may be uncertain and wanting to avoid the conflict. 

One alert and one pointed away – they may be slightly distracted by a sound but not motivated enough or comfortable enough to turn their head away to alert to it. 

Tail

Dog tails tell fascinating dog tales! Every one of them is different, but they are very expressive. Some are high and tight, some are low and loose, some curl over their back, some are nubs, some are docked, making them impossible to read. 

Relaxed tail – when a dog’s tail is held in its natural carriage, whatever that might be.

Flag tail – when a dog’s tail is held high like a flagpole, and stiff, they may be alerting to, or anticipating something concerning. 

High tail – when a dog’s tail is held high but not tight like a flagpole, they are likely alerting to, or anticipating something exciting.

Low tail – when a dog’s tail is held low but not tucked, they may be feeling anxious or uncertain. Sometimes the tip is wagging slowly due to that uncertainty.

Tucked tail – when a dog’s tail is clamped down over their “exit point” (ahem.) and tucked between their legs, they are feeling fearful, anxious, scared. 

The wagging and movement tells a lot too. The more stiff and still the tail is, the more likely it is that they are tense and concerned. The more loose and wiggly the tail is, the more likely it is that they are happy and excited. 

Remember to pair it with the rest of the body! A wagging tail is NOT a happy dog; a wagging tail is a dog who is aroused. You need the rest of the body to form a full story. 

A tight wag is not happy. A wide wag is happy. A helicopter tail is the happiest dog, especially if it’s whipping in a counter-clockwise direction! 

Mouth

Some great info about a dog’s emotional state can be gleaned from their mouth, so let’s explore that! 

Dogs can “smile” by loosening their jaw and allowing their mouth to either remain softly closed or open with a relaxed tongue. You should also see the rest of the components relaxed as well – the eyes, ears, tail, etc. 

The commissure – the corners of the mouth. When these are pulled tight, the dog is likely stressed, anxious, or uncomfortable.

* When they are pulled tight and puckered, almost in a cartoonish way, they may be very close to vomiting. 

When the mouth is open but the commissures are pulled back in a > shape, the dog is likely stressed, very over-exerted or recovering from stress.

* If the tongue pulled back behind the teeth while the commissures are pulled back in a > shape, the dog is stressed and might escalate into a bark, air snap, or bite. 

When the mouth is open but the commissures are pulled back in a C-shape, the dog is likely hot, excited, or happy. 

The tight mouth – this signifies fear, anxiety, stress, or frustration. Not an approachable dog. 

The tongue flick – oftentimes dogs like this are feeling a little apprehensive and might need some space.

The agonistic pucker – this is what dogs do to warn off a threat. This is a mouth we don’t want to get close to! Their lips a puckered up tight and pulled forward with their whiskers, their nose wrinkles, and their teeth are showing. “This is what I will do if you don’t stop that now” is what they’re saying. Time to back off! 

The “grin” – there are two reasons for this grin – one is that the dog is friendly but a little uncomfortable. The other is that they are trying to appease us – “please don’t fight with me – let’s work this out peacefully!”

Posture

A relaxed dog is a dog who shows no signs of tension in their face and body. Their weight is evenly distributed on the front and back. Their movements are loose, if not bouncy. 

A playful, silly dog is one that is bouncy, loose, wiggly, and whose movement are completely inefficient for anything but play. 

Oftentimes there’s a play bow, which is like an ice-breaker, an invitation to play, or a signal to “chill out – we’re just having fun!” if things are getting tense.

A dog who alert or interested in something or someone will stand tall and straight. (1) There may be a potential friend, a fast-moving prey animal, something curious, or exciting! Others might pull forward intensely if on leash. (2)

A dog who is nervous, unsure, fearful, or panicked, will likely try to lower their body and move away. Their paws are often splayed if not tucked in tight as they cower. The weight will shift backwards in the direction they want to go.

Dogs who are hyper-focused on something or someone will “stalk” by lowering their body and becoming very streamlined and pointed forward. They will move slowly and methodically in a creeping manner. This might be a prey-animal (squirrel or bird), a friend they’re excited to see (pounce!), or something that piqued their curiosity and sense of caution. 

“I love you” – the words we want to hear but never will, from our dogs. They show it in different ways, though – you have to look closely. When a dog stands up on their hind legs, resting their front paws on us, then stretches while looking at us longingly, this is one way that they say it! 

Dogs who are feeling frantic and almost panicked will often move quickly – their paws, especially. Some might be so excited that they stand on their hind legs and bat the air with their front paws. Others might do a four-pawed “dance” where their paws don’t seem to stop moving in all directions. Oftentimes they look stressed too – worried face, panting quickly, ears back, and very intense. While some instances might be excitement, other instances might be true panic and a need to get away. 

When a dog feels uncertain, they usually stay put or pull back a bit, turn away a little but not so much that they’re vulnerable, and lift a paw. 

Dogs who are threatened, defensive, or feeling suspicious about someone or something, will often stand tall, but rather than looking relaxed but alert like the “alert and interested” dog above, they will look a little more prickly, shall we say? 

Tall, pointing forward, tail up and pointing towards their head or lowered/tucked, hackles (mohawk) raised, and a very serious face. 

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

by: Lili Chin

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