Understanding Your Dog’s Body Language

Understanding Your Dog’s Body Language

Christine D. Calder DVM DACVB

While humans primarily use words to speak, dogs communicate with their bodies.  They have many ritualized behaviors to indicate how they feel and to resolve conflict without aggression. When interpreting body language, it is important to evaluate not just the tails of the dogs, but also their ears, eyes, mouths, and whole-body position. Changes in body language can be subtle, missed, or misinterpreted which can easily result in misunderstandings.

Eyes: Relaxed dogs will have almond shaped eyes with small pupils. Fearful or anxious dogs’ eyes may appear wide with pupils dilated causing them to look black and glossy. In some dogs, a large portion of the whites of their eyes will be visible called “whale eye.” Dogs that feel threatened may look away, but some will stare directly at the threat. Therefore, prolonged eye contact from a human is considered rude and threatening for some.

Face and Mouth: Worried dogs often have furrowed brows with their mouths drawn tight. The corners of their mouths turned down while others will pant heavily with their tongues hanging out, wide and curled up at the end. Relaxed dogs tend to have soft faces and mouths (i.e., no tension). Their mouths may also be open and panting, but usually if this is the case, their tongues hang out in front or to the side of the mouth without an obvious curl at the end.

Yawning can be another sign of stress in dogs, and anxious dogs will lick their lips, nose, and even humans.  If dogs growl, they are indicating their needs for space without aggression but if ignored or punished, growling can escalate to the showing of teeth or result in snaps or bites instead.

Ears: Relaxed ears tend to sit at the top of the dog’s head with some ears permanently fixed in an upright position depending on the breed. Fearful and anxious dogs will pull their ears back and flat against their heads if they can.  Ear position can change frequently but usually is a good indication of how dogs are feeling.

Tail: When interpreting tail position in dogs, it is important to remember that a wagging tail does not always mean a dog is friendly or wants to interact. Dogs that bite often do so with a wagging tail. An upright, stiff, and fast wagging tail tends to indicate that the dog is gathering information or is on alert. Tails that are low with slow, stiff wags, or tucked under their bellies communicate uncertainty, fear, and anxiety.

The Body: How dogs respond with the rest of their bodies can vary depending on past learning experiences, genetics, and individual situations. Some will stand their ground, heads held high, leaning forward, or lunging while others crouch with their heads down, lean away, freeze, or start walking slowly and stiffly with deliberate steps.  While relaxed dogs often approach willingly with relaxed and loose bodies, others may roll over on their sides or backs. However, be careful how you interpret this “roll over” because while some may be asking for a true “belly rub”, others are conflicted or anxious which means, they are saying, “please let this interaction end” or “move away” instead. This why it is so important to look at the “rest of the picture” before you reach in for the pet.  

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