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How well can you read your dog’s body language?
Dogs communicate with us in all sorts of ways, and body language is an important one. A dog’s body language can tell you if they’re feeling happy, anxious, or afraid, and can help you know what your dog needs in that moment. Here’s our guide to reading canine body language and forming a closer bond with your dog in the process.
Why is it important to understand dog body language?
Understanding a dog’s body language is a key part of communicating with them. Since our dogs can’t verbally tell us how they’re feeling, it’s important for us to be able to read their cues in other ways. This is especially important when our dogs are introduced to, or interact with, humans or other dogs. We need to be able to tell if our dog is having a good time or is feeling nervous or threatened. Being able to pick up on these signals can help prevent dog fights, as well as bites to humans, and helps minimize stress for your dog.
Happy dog body language
Most of us are familiar with the body language of a happy dog, even if we haven’t quite put our finger on the indicators. Here are some signs that a dog is having a good time:
- Relaxed stance
- Ears up, but not forward
- Mouth slightly open with a relaxed tongue
- Eyes that are squinting or blinking
- Head held high
- Dilated pupils
- “Play bow”: butt up in the air, front half of body lowered with front legs bent
- A wagging tail, but only if it’s wagging quickly, side to side, or in a “helicopter” motion, and is accompanied by other indications of contentment. As trainer Victoria Stilwell notes, tail wagging is often misinterpreted to always mean a happy dog, and that’s not the case.
- A wiggling butt or lower half of body
If your dog is clearly having a good time, just keep doing what you’re doing, whether it’s petting, playing, or simply letting them lie in the sun!
If the happy dog in question is new to you, be sure to always approach with caution. If you see a dog that seems to be having a good time, but the dog is unknown to you, do not approach the dog too quickly or assume she will be friendly to strangers. Use caution and look to her human handlers for guidance.
Worried/nervous dog body language
Some of the signals that a dog is stressed or nervous are subtle, and some may even mean different things depending on the situation. For these reasons, it’s important to pay close attention to your dog and to be on the lookout for these indications:
- Lip licking or flicking of the tongue
- Yawning (in certain situations—of course, yawning may simply indicate that the dog is tired, so take their other body language cues, as well as the overall situation, into account)
- Body freezing
- “Whale eye”: Whale eye, or side eye, occurs when a dog turns their head but keeps their eyes on you (or on the perceived threat), showing a large amount of the whites of their eyes. The whale eye means “give me space.”
- Facial tension, including tensed jaw
- Turning the head away from the perceived threat (a sign of appeasement)
- Furrowed or curved brow
- Carrying the tail low to the ground or tucked between the legs
- Hair on neck and back standing on end
- A lowered body: this is a sign of appeasement and can mean a dog is frightened.
How to help your worried/nervous dog
If you see your dog becoming stressed or nervous, pause and assess the situation. In many cases, you’ll want to immediately stop what you’re doing. It might be obvious what the cause of the stress is: perhaps your dog is reactive to other dogs and he sees another pup across the street while you’re out on a walk.
However, it might not always be obvious what the stressor is. For instance, maybe you’re cleaning the house, and noticed your dog exhibiting nervous behavior when you came close to him or reached toward him. Maybe he is guarding a treasured toy or bone that is hidden in the couch cushions, or maybe he feels that you got too close to his bed. In any case, stop and give your dog some space while you try to figure out the situation. This is not a time to try and force things: it’s a time to back off. If you’re reaching toward your dog, calmly draw your hand back. If you’re standing near your dog, calmly walk further away. Avert your gaze and speak in a happy voice to communicate that you’re not a threat. Once you’ve defused the situation, try to figure out what caused the stress.
It’s especially important to pay attention to canine body language when your dog is meeting another dog or person. If your dog begins displaying any of the behaviors above, calmly and politely end the meeting as quickly as you can. You may have to be direct with other dog handlers: for example, you might say something like “my dog seems nervous, so we’re going to keep walking,” or “it seems like she needs some space, so let’s stop petting her for now.” Advocate for your dog by speaking up for the needs she’s communicating to you with her body, and never force your dog to meet a dog, person, or other animal that they don’t seem comfortable meeting. (The same goes for being petted by another person—or being petted by you, for that matter.)
Never punish your dog for displaying worry or fear.
Fearful dog body language/signs a dog may become aggressive
If a dog feels threatened or protective of resources, he might become aggressive. A helpful saying to keep in mind is “an aggressive dog is a scared dog.” If a dog feels afraid, it could lead to what is typically called “aggressive” behavior.
Here are the signs to look for:
- Raised hackles (the hairs that run along a dog’s spine)
- Tail tucked between legs
- Nose wrinkled
- Ears pulled back: this can be tough to determine, depending on your dog’s natural ear position, but take the situation into account. A dog’s ears in their natural resting position indicates that the dog is happy and relaxed. However, the further back a dog’s ears go, the more fear he is indicating. If his ears seem pulled back or tight against his head, rather than simply in a “resting” position, that is your indication that the dog is nervous.
- Corner of mouth curled back/ lips curled – teeth might be visible
- “Hard eye”: this one is tough to describe, but trainer Patricia McConnell does a good job. Hard eye is an intense stare that doesn’t feel “right.”
- Stiff body
In addition, a dog may bark or growl if feeling threatened. A dog growling is not necessarily a bad thing (and should not be punished). A growl is a warning that means “stop” or “stay away.” If you stop the offending behavior, the dog is unlikely to act aggressively. If pressed further, however, there’s a chance he may lunge or snap.
How to help a fearful or aggressive dog
In the moment: Just like when you notice your dog feeling stressed, do your best to defuse the situation as quickly and calmly as possible. This is especially important if your dog displays any of the above body language, as it indicates that aggression against others (humans or animals) may come next.
To the best of your ability, get your dog out of the situation. If a dog is walking toward you, cross the street. If your cat is getting too close to your dog’s food, move the cat (or the food), and so forth. Your goal is to end the fear-inducing situation as quickly and safely as possible.
Long term: There are many reasons that dogs may display aggression. If your dog regularly seems fearful or aggressive, it’s a good idea to begin working with a trainer to get to the root of the issue. Make sure you find someone who uses positive reinforcement training and has a fear free certification.
A dog’s body language is an important way they communicate with us (as well as with other dogs). Learning to read your dog’s body language is key to training your dog, bonding with them, and making sure they thrive. Keeping an eye on your dog’s body language in all situations will help ensure your dog has a safe, happy life. If you want to practice observing your dog’s body language, book a Sniffspot and watch your dog play and react to different stimuli!
Trainer Review of this Article
There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers.
These is the trainer that reviewed this article:
Owner – Ahimsa Dog Training, Ballard, WA
Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA)
Co-host, “It’s Raining Cats and Dogs” on KIRO 97.3 FM