Now We’re Talking: Decode Your Dog’s Body Language

By Beth McEwen

Dogs communicate with us—and one another— by using their own sophisticated language, most of which is non-verbal. Seven important aspects of a dog’s body language can help us decipher what they are trying to tell us, and those include eyes, ears, mouth, tail, sweat and overall body posture/movement. Each element on its own is a piece of the puzzle, but all aspects combined provide a complete picture of your pup’s state-of-mind.

The Eyes Have It

Not just “windows to the soul,” eyes can tell us a great deal about our dog’s mental state. When looking at your dog’s eyes, pay attention to the white part (the sclera), and consider the focus and intensity of the dog’s gaze. When Fido is feeling tense, his eyes may appear rounder than normal, or they may show a lot of white around the outside (also known as “whale eye.”) Dilated pupils are also a sign of stress. Relaxed or playful pups will have more relaxed eyes that may be described as “soft” or “bright” as opposed to the “hard” eyes that indicate intensity and tension.

Mouthing Off

A relaxed dog will likely have his mouth open and may be softly panting, with no facial or mouth tension. The corners of his mouth may be turned upward slightly in a sort of doggy smile. Conversely, a fearful or tense dog will generally keep his mouth closed, and may pull his lips back at the corners. He may also be panting rapidly. Drooling when no food is present can also be a sign of extreme fear or stress.

Some dogs display a “submissive grin” or “smile.” This is also a gesture where a dog shows his front teeth, but a smiling dog is doing just that. He usually shows a lowered head, wagging tail, flattened ears, a soft body posture and soft, squinty eyes along with those teeth. Teeth don’t always mean aggression—a perfect example of why it is important to consider the whole body of your pup as well as what is happening at the moment to better understand what they may be saying.

A dog displaying a physical warning may wrinkle the top of his muzzle, often pulling her lips up vertically to display her front teeth. Fifi might display this warning when someone attempts to take her very favorite bone. This warning often comes with a tense forehead, hard eyes (round eyes with a lot of white showing, and the fully dilated pupil) and a growl. This situation could escalate to a bite if the warnings are not heeded.

Two commonly-missed stress indicators include yawning and lip-licking. These are often meant as appeasement behaviors, which are low-key ways of letting you know that Fifi isn’t comfortable with the current situation and that she needs you to intervene.

We’re All Ears

Dogs have a tremendous variety in ear shape, but even the shortest-cropped ears and the longest hound-ears can tell us something. The key is to look at the base of the ears where they meet Fido’s head: If he is relaxed, the bottom of his ears may be pointing slightly back or out to the sides. As he becomes more excited, his ears will move forward, pointing toward a subject of interest. However, when preparing to defend himself from a perceived threat, Fido may flatten his ears completely back. It is even common for both ears to be pointing in different directions, indicating divided attention or inner conflict.

Chasing Your Tail

When observing Fifi’s tail, we should consider both the position of the base of the tail and how the tail is moving. A relaxed dog holds his tail in a neutral position, extending out from the spine or below spine level. As the dog becomes more excited or aroused, his tail usually rises above spine level.
A fearful dog will tuck his tail between his rear legs. The tail may also be held rigid against the belly, or wag stiffly.

The tail movement may be a loose wag from side to side or a sweeping circular motion. As the dog becomes more excited or aroused, his tail usually rises above spine level. He may also move his tail side to side in short, rapid movements as he becomes more excited. Be sure to take into account the many breed variations of tail-set, such as the husky or malamute’s naturally high tail carriage, or a pug’s curly tail, when looking at this piece of the body-language puzzle.

Hair of the Dog

Much like our own goosebumps, the hair can raise on a dog’s back when he is upset or excited. This is also known as piloerection or “raised hackles” and can occur across the shoulders, down the spine and above the tail.  Hackles don’t always mean aggression is imminent, but they are an indicator that the dog is excited or upset about something. A frightened or stressed dog may also shed more than usual.

Don’t Sweat It

Dogs are only able to sweat through their paws. If your pooch is panting heavily and leaving wet footprints on the floor, that’s a good indicator that he may be highly-stressed at the moment.

Perfect Posture

When initiating play, dogs often start with a play bow and generally follow up with exaggerated facial and body movements. A playful dog’s body movement will be loose and wiggly, with lots of movement and brief pauses during play.

On the other hand, a dog who seems stiff, moves slowly or freezes, or who keeps moving away may not be interested in social interaction. Looking away, sniffing (sometimes at nothing in particular), scratching and lying down are other avoidance behaviors that may indicate Fido isn’t excited about the current situation. Freezing is usually a dog’s last-ditch effort to get something to stop.

Not long ago, a student told me she knows her dog loves to be hugged by her child because the dog stays very, very still when it’s happening.

After a brief moment of panic, I gave her a more accurate translation – her pooch was sending an SOS for her owner to intervene!

A fearful or defensive dog may lean away, lean back, tremble, crouch, lower his body or head or roll onto his side or back. Often, his eyes will often be fully open with large pupils, his forehead may be wrinkled, and his tail will be lowered or tucked. A dog displaying aggressive body language will look large, standing with his head raised above his shoulders. His body will be tense, with weight either centered or over all four feet or leaning slightly forward onto the front legs. He may also have a wrinkled muzzle, tight lips and a hard eye. Whether defensive or aggressive in nature, a pup that is showing these signs is close to making the decision to bite. Slowly and calmly remove yourself and give the dog some space to calm down.

Keep in mind all seven pieces of the body-language puzzle, and you will have a better idea of how Fido or Fifi is feeling in any given moment. Be aware of the subtle signals of discomfort, and be your dog’s advocate by helping get them out of uncomfortable situations before they decide they have to escalate to defensive or aggressive behavior.

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