As humans, we rely on verbal communication, but did you know that dogs communicate mostly through body postures and scent (olfactory cues) rather than vocalisation? Although we love to talk to our dogs and take pride in how many words they can recognise, it’s only fair that we should do our own learning to understand their needs too! This means learning to read their body language to understand what they are trying to communicate to us and to other dogs.
The language of dogs
There are many reasons why interpreting canine body language is important. Through their behaviour, dogs can indicate how they are feeling. With this information, we can help make sure they have more of the things that bring them happiness or remove them from a situation they find threatening.
Unhappy dogs will have a poor quality of life. Being able to identify and attend to our dogs’ needs is not only part of being a responsible pet owner but helps to build a positive relationship with them and improve their wellbeing. It is also crucial for safety, because dog bites can occur when people fail to recognise the escalating signs that a dog is feeling distressed; dogs typically show this in many subtle ways before they growl, snap or lunge. This is why we should teach children how to interact with pets safely and never leave them unattended with a dog.
Dogs provide judgement-free companionship and bring laughter and joy into our lives. For most of us, returning the favour and making sure our furry friends are living their best life is of utmost importance. Being able to interpret when your dog is happy can help you work out what activities or situations they enjoy most, so you can provide more of those and make sure they are living their best life alongside you.
An important step in understanding canine body language is to practise observing the following postures and movement of individual body parts, and learn to consider these in combination to help understand a dog’s overall emotional state. It’s important to remember that the same body language can reflect different feelings, depending on the particular setting and also the overall context of what is happening. For example, a dog who is panting may be nervous, overheated or tired.
- Pricked forward - alert, excited, aroused
- Forward and relaxed - confident, aware, friendly
- Back and relaxed - calm, friendly
- Held back tightly - fearful
- Folded behind and relaxed - appeasing
- Averted gaze - appeasing, fearful
- Squinting - appeasing, happy greeting, concern
- Soft direct gaze - calm, relaxed
- Open wide - confident
- Hard stare - alert, excited, aroused, aggressive
- Showing the whites in the corner of the eyes (known as ‘whale eye’) - fearful, anxious
- Lips pulled back - appeasing, fearful
- Tense and closed - unsure
- Relaxed and open - calm, friendly
- Puckered forward and lips lifted - fearful
- Panting, lip licking, yawning - fearful, stressed, conflict
- Tucked under or pointing down - fearful, appeasing, stressed
- Carried lower than back or tail gently wagging - relaxed, friendly, happy
- Carried high, still or vibrating - assertive, confident, tense, aroused, aggressive
- Fast wag to tip - threatening
- Lowered posture, hackles may be raised - fearful
- Rolling over and showing their belly - appeasing
- Standing at full height, full weight on all paws - confident, relaxed
- Body posture forward, standing tall, hackles may be raised - alert, assertive, excited, aroused, threatening, aggressive
When you are confident in noticing changes in your dog’s body language and what these may mean, the next step is to consider their body as a whole to assess how they are feeling about a situation. This may be at home, around children, at the veterinary clinic or out walking. You can also observe this when they are with other dogs, which is particularly helpful when they meet unfamiliar dogs. There are some consistent patterns in how dogs behave, so knowing what to expect will help you to read their body language and predict what their intentions may be.
Dogs have learned from puppyhood how to avoid conflict or threats, calm themselves and invite positive interactions (such as play) by using calming signals. These are also sometimes referred to as defusing behaviours because they help to diffuse intense or potentially threatening situations and prevent interactions from getting out of control.
Learning to recognise common calming signals you may see in your dog will help you identify how they are feeling and their ability to interact with others. Examples include:
- Head turning to avoid a direct stare, which shows discomfort
- ‘Half-moon eye/whale eye’ – showing the whites of the eyes is another form of looking away and often occurs with a head or body turn to indicate fear or discomfort
- Turning away to present their side or back is a way dogs show discomfort, such as if they are spoken to harshly
- Nose or lip lick – this is another sign of discomfort and can either be so quick you may miss it, or may be a prolonged or repeated signal
- Squinting or eye softening can indicate a dog is not a threat
- Freezing is when there is no muscle movement at all, indicating a dog feels threatened (such as when approached by a strange dog)
- Play bow is when a dog drops the front of their body to the ground but keeps their rear end up, and is usually an invitation to play but can also mean they are releasing stress
- Yawning indicates stress and is a way of trying to relieve this
- Sniffing along the ground is a signal dogs often use when approached by others to indicate they are busy and are not a threat
- Curving is the way dogs politely meet new dogs by approaching them from an angle rather than face-on in a straight line and indicates a peaceful intent. Sniffing the rear end of another dog is less likely to result in conflict and injury.
- Paw lift – this can be an invitation to play or a sign of discomfort
- Shake off – dogs who shake when they are not wet are showing discomfort and do this to reduce tension, such as when needing a break after play that has escalated
- Slower movements such as creeping around can be a way of trying to calm others
- Sitting or lying down can also be a way of attempting to calm other dogs, such as when unfamiliar dogs rush over
- Splitting up – dogs may place themselves between other dogs or people if they sense the situation is becoming tense
- Tail wagging is an indication of arousal and does not always mean a dog is happy and friendly. Dogs who are wagging their tails are willing to engage, but if they are also barking aggressively, the intent is more likely to be aggressive rather than playful.
Signs of anxiety or stress
According to Veterinary Behaviourist Dr Grace Thurtell (BVSc, MANZCVS in Veterinary Behaviour), dogs who are uncertain or anxious can show ‘fiddle behaviours’. When shown out of context, these seemingly normal signs are clear indicators that a dog is feeling uncomfortable. These can include:
- Licking their lips when they haven’t eaten or had anything to drink
- Yawning or having a full body stretch as if they have just awoken
- Doing full body shakes when they aren’t wet
- Panting when they’re not hot
- Continual scratching
The following are further signs of stress or fear in dogs, when showing their need for space and/or for having a break:
- Frequent blinking
- Lip licking
- Turning their head away, and
- Showing the white part of their eyes
Assertive or aggressive body language
Another pattern we must be able to recognise is when a dog is showing assertive or aggressive body language. This is likely to occur when we miss the earlier calming or diffusing signs they were using, which means their behaviour is escalating. This body language can also occur suddenly in dogs who are highly aroused or aggressive and are on high alert, which means they are likely to respond more intensely to anything they perceive as a threat:
- Direct eye contact along with other body signals such as pulling lips back and displaying teeth
- Progressing from holding the head, ears and neck up to lowering their head and flattening their ears as the perceived threat continues
- Tail held up straight or curved over the back, and sometimes slow tail movements or rapid wagging
- Shifting body weight towards the front, as this allows for quick action
- Hair on their back ‘standing on end’, which makes the dog appear larger and more threatening
Happy and relaxed body language
Finally, do you know how to recognise when your dog is happy and relaxed? After all, this is what we are all aiming for! Some of the signs of a happy and relaxed dog are an open mouth with the tongue lolling out, the ‘play bow’ and tail wagging, although in tense situations, this can also indicate nervousness or anxiety, so tail wagging does not always mean a happy dog. The typical expression of a happy and relaxed dog is further described below by Dr Thurtell:
“When a dog is relaxed, their facial muscles are relaxed, their ears are relaxed and forward facing, their tails are carried at mid-level/parallel with the ground (depending on the breed), and it wags softly and wide.”
Keeping your dog safe
If you have pet insurance, this can be a great way to help your dog receive the veterinary treatment they need for eligible accidents and illness. If you’re with RSPCA Pet Insurance, a portion of first-year premiums will go towards supporting the RSPCA.
27 Sep 2022