Dogs are expert communicators but they do it differently from us. As dogs lack the ability to speak words, they use their body instead to let others know how they are feeling. Combined with vocalizations such as barking, growling, wining, or whimpering – you would be surprised how well dogs are able to communicate their needs. In fact, as a social animal, your dog is adept at interacting with others. The problem is that humans often misread or ignore their dog’s attempt at communication. The solution? Learn to speak ‘Dog’!
Rescue dogs are especially vulnerable to being misunderstood. Dogs that come from an environment of trauma or abuse will need extra time to adjust to their new surroundings, and during this period they will be communicating their feelings in the hope that those around them will understand. Miscommunication during this critical time can leave a dog feeling defenseless, exposed, and insecure – just when they need stability to promote safety and trust.
There are several parts of a dog’s anatomy that play an extra important role in dog communication. These include the tongue, eyes, ears, paws, and tail. Your dog will instinctively use all of these during his daily interactions with you and others. Sometimes your dog will use a combination of body parts to indicate his needs. Read on for some tips to demystify the intriguing language of your dog!
I have included three charts that are especially good at explaining dog body language in pictures. Like any language, remember that practice makes perfect! The more often you take the time to assess your dog’s gestures and behavior, the better equipped you will be to understand your canine best friend. Learning to speak ‘Dog’ will definitely bring you both closer, and enhance your relationship!
Interpreting your dog’s body language accurately, will also help you both avoid problem interactions at the dog park. Is that strange dog bounding towards yours relaxed and wanting to play, or is there a potential conflict ahead?
Dog play can be surprisingly vigorous, but there are some important social rules that must be followed to ensure that everyone is having fun! Dogs that are having a good time together are relaxed and reverse roles frequently. There may be shake-offs to loosen up, reduce tension, and break up the play.
Common Miscommunication Errors! It should be noted that dogs do not become confused with their body language – it is always us humans that get it wrong! Here are a few cases of common errors that can get us in a muddle (or worse) with our canine best friend.
Dog yawns: Human thinks dog is tired (probably not). Dogs frequently yawn to calm themselves when they are feeling a bit stressed or are unsure how to proceed. Not only does this help the dog calm himself, but it also offers others a signal that the dog is unsettled.
Dogs have a number of calming signals including yawning, raising a paw, or licking their lips. Humans have calming signals too such as stretching, licking our lips, or chewing/biting nails. See, we’re not that different after all!
Dog looks away: Human thinks dog is shy and needs to be soothed and touched (no). The dog is actually trying to tell us that she is feeling anxious and uncomfortable, and would like some space. Dogs look away to be polite and indicate that they are no threat. Staring in dog language is considered rude and aggressive.
By the way, this is not the moment to move in and hug your dog! Dogs don’t really like tight, close hugs – humans do! Overwhelming an already uncomfortable dog with an overbearing hug can cause the dog to feel really threatened. Additional body language can offer clues as to just how unhappy the dog is! Look for ‘whale’ eye, pinned back ears, tail between the legs, and low posture. Then back off!
Dogs that are really comfortable with their human, tolerate being hugged because they trust that they are safe and secure. Most dogs prefer affection in the form of petting, rubbing, and massaging combined with a soft loving voice = doggie bliss!
Dog appears to ‘smile’ showing her teeth: Human thinks dog is aggressive (no). Paired with otherwise relaxed body language, this is known as a submissive smile – an indication from the dog that she is no threat! Look at the way the dog is holding her mouth – a laid-back pooch with a submissive smile looks quite different from a dog with an aggressive stance – curling up her lips and baring her teeth! Dogs will often offer a submissive smile when on their back asking for a belly rub.
Dog is perfectly still: Human thinks dog is re-assessing the situation (no). Actually, a threatened dog will ‘freeze’ just before lunging and biting. Pay attention to other body language signals that indicate that your dog is ready to attack (curled lips, visible teeth, whale eye, raised hackles, growling).
A dog that is exhibiting fearful aggression is especially likely to bite if her warning signals are ignored.
Dog is shaking/trembling: Human thinks dog is cold (maybe not). Unless the dog is soaking wet or has been outside in sub-zero temperatures for an extended period of time, he is much more likely to be feeling scared.
This is one of those situations where context should be used to de-code the dog’s message. If your pooch is trembling during a heatwave – he’s not cold!
Dog is panting: Human thinks dog is hot (maybe not). Another no-brainer that humans frequently get wrong is mistaking a stressed dog for an overheated one! Look for some other clues. If there is no obvious reason for your dog to be hot, she’s probably stressed!
The tongue position can also help distinguish between a dog that is panting because he’s stressed from one that is trying to cool down. Stressed panting is accompanied by a relatively stiff tongue held in tight whereas a tongue that is loose and floppy is more efficient at dissipating heat.
Dog is wagging his tail: Human thinks dog is happy (not necessarily). Again, other body language clues and context can help clarify your dog’s message. Is the dog tense or relaxed? Is the tail held high or is it at mid level? Pay attention to what else is happening. A wagging tail suggests alertness and arousal – both good (happy and excited) and not-so-good (threatening and dominant). A stiff tail that is held high and is wagging slightly – combined with other signs of aggression – is an indication that the dog is planning to attack if challenged.
A good understanding of dog body language is a vital skill for anyone who frequently interacts with canines. Our dogs rely on us to provide for their needs – physical and emotional – and the only way to be truly responsive to your furry family member is to accurately interpret what he is communicating to you!
Stay tuned for part two of LALDR’s blog series on learning to read your dog’s body language.
Anne P. (Administrator)