Dog Talk

By Sara Sokol
Mr. Dog Training
Dogs are excellent communicators. They have no problem telling us when they are stressed, when they are having a hard time, when they are tired, when they are happy, when they are excited, when they are anxious, and when they’re unsure.
The problem is that you and I are used to listening with our ears and not our eyes.
Crystal clear communication, that any human therapist would be proud of, comes easy for dogs.

•    Stressed about being hugged, they say something.
•    Anxious about a new baby that was brought home, they say something.
•    Overstimulated by a visiting dog friend, they say something.
•    Overwhelmed with sheer joy at their human’s arrival home, they say something.

They share their feelings, big and small, with ease.
It’s our job to become better listeners and learn to look at our furry friend’s body language to “listen” to them. Understanding how to read canine body language is one of the most important things that we, as dog guardians, can do, and not just so we can understand our dogs, but so we can give them the best lives possible.
When looking at canine body language, it’s important to not only look at the context in which your dog is using its body and communicating, but also the complete picture of the dog’s whole  body, from head, including the ear position, eye position, mouth position, to tail, including the angle that it is standing with the rigidity or softness in its body, the level of its tail, how quickly it’s moving, and how much of that tail is moving. These should all be taken into account when determining a dog’s emotional state.

Here are some things to look out for…


 •    Body wagging/moving/ wiggling with the tail
 •    Rolling over on back with RELAXED body
 •    Soft eyes with very little white showing
 •    Dog approaches with c-shaped body
 •    Ears relaxed or laying back flat against head

Dog is Struggling

•    Head lowered
•    Rolling over on back with STIFF body
•    Dog freezes
•    Tail high and still
•    Tail wagging without the body
•    Tail low and wagging
•    Tail tucked under the body
•    Whale eye (lots of white showing)
•    Barking at a child
•    Hackles up (hair standing up on the back)
•    Ears perked up

Stress Signals

•    Yawning
•    Panting when it is not hot
•    Scratching itself when it is not itchy
•    Avoiding eye contact
•    Stretching after not just waking up
•    Lying down and avoiding interaction
•    Excessive drooling
•    Pacing or circling
•    Whining
•    Sweaty paws
•    Growls
•    Lip curls
•    Starts to show teeth
Many dog guardians wait until a dog behavior becomes reactive or loud and impossible to ignore before they realize the dog is having a hard time and that there is a problem.
However, before a dog barks, growls or lunges, it will give handfuls of subtle body language cues that communicate its emotional state.

Our goal should be to listen to their “whispers” instead of waiting until they “yell.”

When we start to understand our dogs’ emotional state by learning how to read their body language, we then have the tools to decipher what’s driving their behavior. Once we can do that, and only when we can do that, not only will we have success in training, but the bond and the relationship that we build with our dogs will be stronger than any before.

When a dog, or a human for that matter, knows that it is heard when it speaks and that its feelings matter, it feels safe. Isn’t a home where it can feel safe and heard what all dogs deserve?
Sara Sokol is owner of Mr. Dog Training in Brunswick Maine; a positive reinforcement dog training facility, offering both in person and virtual classes, who has been voted best trainer in Maine for the past 9 years.
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