What Your Dog’s Body Language Is Trying to Tell You
They may not be able to speak, but dogs can communicate what they’re thinking and feeling through body language. Learn how to pick up on their cues to enrich your relationship and keep both you and your pet safe. By Haylee Bergeland, KPA-CTP, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA Updated August 19, 2021 Advertisement Pin FB More Tweet Email Send Text Message Print
Our canine besties don't stay up all night with us and gab about our latest family drama and they can't just interrupt our Zoom meeting (with words!) to tell us they are really bored. If our dogs could just walk up to us and say, "Mom, your behavior this morning is stressing me out" or, "Dad, the neighbor dog makes me feel really uncomfortable," living together would be so much easier … for them and us.
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Even though dog's don't use words to communicate the same way us humans do, they can tell us a lot about what they are feeling and even what they might need or want. Dogs communicate by way of their body. Learning the basics of canine body language and how to "speak dog" goes a long way in helping you to better understand your fur baby, making you a great doggie advocate and responsible dog parent.
lab smiling on bench Credit: Purple Collar Pet Photography / Getty
How Do Dogs Communicate With Humans?
During intraspecific interactions, or when dogs talk to other dogs, they do so by way of sight (visual), sound (auditory), and smell (olfactory). When dogs want to communicate with humans, called interspecific interactions, they tend to use more visual communication, but many dogs find auditory communication, like barking, to be an effective way to get their mom's attention.
One of the most important things to remember about dog body language is that you must "read" (observe and interpret) the entire body, head to tail. Humans are easily confused and misunderstand what their dogs are trying to say when they only focus on one aspect, like the tail or just the dog's face. A wagging tail doesn't always mean a dog is happy and neither does a grin or open mouth.
How to Read Dog Body Language (And Understand What They Want From You)
Like all forms of communication, there is a lot of nuance to dog body language, and a pup's breed and physical characteristics can muddy the canine communication waters. It's important to pay close attention to subtleties in individual dogs and don't make assumptions. Context is critical to mutual understanding.
Happy, confident dogs of most breeds have ears that are up and facing forward or up and slightly to the side. When dogs are relaxed, their ears will hang in a neutral position, typical for the dog's breed. A dog that is focused on something, or paying close attention to you, will keep their ears pricked forward, facing the direction from which the interesting sound is coming. Ears that are pinned tightly to the head or held flat and pointing outwards suggest a dog that is feeling distressed, nervous, and very concerned.
A relaxed dog will have relaxed looking eyes. The eyes will appear soft and open, and the eyebrows will appear smooth and without significant wrinkling. An unhappy, scared, angry dog, on the other hand, will have eyes that show it! A scared dog may exhibit what is called "whale eye" or when the eyes appear larger than normal and the white portion of the eye is very visible. A dog that really does not want you to come near (and you need to listen and respect that boundary) may give you a hard stare. This is when the pupil of the eye may appear large and dilated, the entire eye looks darker than normal, and the dog does not appear to blink.
The tail on a dog probably confuses us humans the most, as we seem to be born believing that a dog with a wagging tail is a happy pupper. However, this is not always the case. A tail that is hanging naturally, loose, and slightly wagging is generally a relaxed dog, and a super excited dog may swing their tail back and forth quickly. However, a dog that is very uncertain and nervous may also wag their tail, slowly, keeping it slightly lower than normal but still swishing back and forth. When a dog's tail is raised high above their back or held tightly in an upwards position, they are likely feeling anxious or insecure (or even threatened) in the current situation. A tail that is held tightly tucked under a dog's belly is a very uncomfortable and distressed dog that does not want any more interactions and needs space and time to recuperate.
A dog's face includes the muzzle and mouth. A relaxed dog is likely to have a slightly open mouth, with flat lips and a wrinkle-free muzzle. But a dog that is not enjoying things or feeling anxiety may have their mouth tightly closed or they may lick their lips or yawn. If a dog is feeling very uncertain or unhappy about their current scenario, they may flick their tongue or pull back the corners of their mouth to reveal teeth. When they are angry or their emotions are intensifying towards the fight portion of the "four Fs of fear" and they are responding to a threat, they might draw back the lips to show bared teeth, exposing their large canines.
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A social or friendly dog has a loose, wiggly-looking body and will walk with a bouncy step, weight evenly displaced over their feet. Nervous or anxious dogs are more likely to roll over, revealing their belly, than dogs that are confident at the moment, so it's important to remember that not every dog is looking for belly rubs when they do this. A super-stressed dog might jump up repeatedly, make their body appear small, cower, and/or tremble. Dogs feeling threatened or wanting to avoid another dog or person will shift their body away, raise a front paw, and/or raise the hackles (called piloerection) on their back.
One of the best things you can do for any dog is listen to what their body is telling you. Your dog, actually all dogs, will thank you!