Dogs can’t talk, but they use their bodies to communicate with us all the time. Human and dog body language are inherently different, so learning to interpret your dog’s signals is key to developing the best possible relationship. Follow this guide from Marina Village Veterinary and Integrative Care to start reading your dog’s body language and strengthening your bond.
Dogs use their entire bodies to communicate their feelings, including overall posture, tail position, facial expressions, sounds, and specific actions. Everything must be considered as a whole to determine a dog’s state of mind, because individual signals can be interpreted differently, depending on what the rest of the dog is doing.
How to identify a relaxed, happy dog
Relaxed dogs have an overall loose posture, and readily engage with their surroundings. They move fluidly or make playful, exaggerated motions. Ears are held in a neutral position or slightly back, and eyes are a soft almond shape or slightly squinted. The mouth and brow are soft. A happy dog’s tail is held in a neutral position level with the spine—or whatever is normal for the breed—and wags in big sweeps or circles.
A dog at play may growl or bark, which can be alarming, but the dog’s body language is wiggly, non-threatening, and doesn’t match the sound. An easy way to identify play is the “play bow,” where the dog places their chest on the ground and their hind end in the air to elicit play from another dog or person.
Some happy dogs exhibit a smiling behavior called a “submissive grin,” in which they pull their lips back to show the front teeth. While scary at first, this signal is not aggressive and actually communicates “I mean no harm,” and is used to greet other dogs or people. A dog with a submissive grin will be wiggly and loose overall.
How to identify a dog on alert
An alert dog, or in training terms, one that is mentally aroused, is generally interested or concerned about something in their surroundings. A dog on alert may go on to investigate, go back to being relaxed, or transition into a fight or flight state. Alert dogs stand with weight evenly distributed, eyes wide and focused, and ears up and forward. Their mouth is closed without any tension, and their tail is neutral to slightly wagging.
Alert dogs are also likely to exhibit raised hackles, or “piloerection.” Akin to goosebumps in people, the hair along the dog’s neck and spine stands up involuntarily when they are intensely interested in something, like meeting an unfamiliar dog.
While none of these signs indicates an aggressive dog, they indicate that the dog is “on edge” and in a state that makes them more likely to act out. Pay close attention to the situations that cause your dog to feel this way, and ensure they are not showing signs of stress.
How to identify a stressed, anxious, or fearful dog
Identifying and eliminating stress in your dog is important for their physical and emotional health. Human misunderstanding of canine fear, anxiety, and stress is also the reason behind many dog bites. The veterinary profession is taking steps to address fear in dogs both in the clinic and at home, starting with sign recognition.
A stressed dog will cower close to the ground, with their weight shifted away from the stressor. They also may urinate or roll onto their back. The dog’s ears will be out to the side or flat against the head. Their eyes will be dilated and open wide, and they may avoid eye contact or show “whale eye,” where they turn their head away, but keep their eyes focused on the stressor, showing the whites of the eyes. The mouth is closed with the lips pulled back, or they may pant, and the tail is low or tucked all the way under the body.
Most stressed dogs exhibit a series of calming behaviors that can be misinterpreted if other stress signs are subtle. These include yawning, lip-licking, looking away, turning away, moving slowly, sniffing, scratching, or lifting a paw. If the stressor is not removed, the dog may become defensive and growl, snarl, show their teeth, or bite. A bite is a dog’s last resort when they feel threatened. Right before they bite, the dog’s tail position may go from tucked to high, and the dog may freeze or stare hard for a few moments.
We often hear in the news that a dog bit “with no warning.” This is seldom true. All dogs give a series of warnings and stress signals, but humans must be able to recognize them to remove the dog from the situation, and prevent them from biting.
How to identify a confident, assertive dog
A confident or assertive dog may be guarding an object, person, or their home. Overall posture is tense and rigid, with weight shifted forward. Ears are forward or to the side, eyes are in a hard stare, the mouth is tight, and the brow or muzzle may be wrinkled. Tail is held high over the back, and may be stiff or quickly wagging. Hackles may be raised, and the dog may lunge, bark, or snarl. If their displays are ignored, they may bite. Confidence is a good thing, as these dogs tend to be more independent and experience less anxiety, but owners should always be aware of their surroundings, and keep their dog under good control.
Body language in dogs is complicated, but with time and practice, you can learn to identify your dog’s emotional state. Call us to schedule a consultation with your Marina Village Veterinary and Integrative Care team if you have any concerns or questions about your dog’s behavior or body language.
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