Dogs are expressive animals, it is in their nature. They communicate with other dogs and to us when they are feeling happy, sad, angry, anxious, nervous, fearful. They use their faces and ear set, bodies, tail carriage and overall demeanor to show all these feelings. We call it body language.
Dogs body language is a form of nonverbal communication that we can learn to recognize and interpret it. When we learn to ‘read’ how our dog is feeling by observing its posture and signals, we will be on the way to successful communication with our fur friend and better equipped to solve behavioral problems that might arise.
Here are some basic body parts movements guidelines for reading your dog’s body language:
Eyes: dogs can vary the shape and size of their eyes and intensity and direction of their gaze. Eyes appearing larger than normal usually indicate that a dog is feeling threatened, stressed, or frightened in some way. An aggressive dog will also show eyes that are larger than normal.
Dogs who are in pain or not feeling well often look as though they are squinting their eyes. Submissive dogs may also squint their eyes.
Mouth: the way dogs position their lips, jaws and teeth tell us a lot about how they are feeling. Relaxed and happy dogs will have their mouth closed or slightly opened. Frightened dogs will have their mouth closed with lips pulling back slightly at the corners. When dogs are feeling uptight, they will most likely yawn in an exaggerated fashion. Some dogs will pull their lips and display their canines and incisors teeth following by an lowered head, yelping or whining, and squinty eyes when they are feeling submissive.
Fearful dogs will likely retract their lips back really tight at the corners of the mouth while also wrinkling the top of their muzzle. Aggressive dogs will pull their lips up AND back and they might consider attacking/biting.
Ears: dogs that are feeling relaxed and comfortable will hold their ears naturally. When alert, they will raise them higher on the head and direct them toward whatever is holding their interest. When feeling aggressive they will also raise them up AND forward. Dogs who have their ears pulled back slightly is signaling their intention to be friendly. If the ears are completely flattened or stuck out to the sides of the head, they are signaling feeling submissive and frightened.
Tail: Relaxed dogs hold their tail in its natural position (hanging down, curling up, slightly tucked between the rear legs, or surgically docked, depending on the breed). Happy dogs will wag their tails from side to side or in a circular pattern. Nervous or submissive dogs will usually lower their tails or tuck it between the rear legs in some cases, they will tucked it up tight against their belly. Dogs that are alert or aroused about something will hold their tail higher than normal. If they are threatening someone or something, they might ‘flag’ their tail up keeping it stiff moving it rigidly back and forth. One might think they are wagging their tail but everything else about the body movement shows otherwise.
Hair: dogs stick their hair to communicate how they are, we call it piloerection, commonly called ‘raising the hackles’. Although dogs’ hair is most often raised over the withers, the area where the tops of a dog’s shoulder blade meet. Dogs can raise their hair all along their spine. Dogs raise their hair when they are aroused about something. It’s comparable to a person having goose bumps. Raised hackles can mean that a dog is afraid, angry, insecure, unsure, nervous or wildly excited about something.
Body posture: dogs that are feeling happy will look normal-relaxed, muscles and weight evenly balanced on all four feet. Playful dogs will have the same body posture, except they may bounce around or run wildly with exaggerated movements. Scared dogs will hunch as though trying to look small, with the head held low as well. Dogs that are feeling frightened by someone or something will recoil away from it. Dogs that are uncertain but curious about something might approach it tentatively, with their weight centered over their rear legs so that they can retreat quickly of they need to.
We can’t always read a dog’s body language accurately. Dogs, just like people, have their own, unique personalities, and they don’t all express themselves in the same way. One dog wagging its tail might mean that the animal is happy to see you or wants to play. The same gesture in another dog might mean that it is anxious or nervous. Our awareness of our dogs movements and feelings are the best precaution we could take to better understand and interact with our loved furry friends.