As humans, we have our own intricate spoken language. That language differs from country to country — sometimes state to state. We also have our own form of body language. Sometimes, we can read each other easily and sometimes our body language is dubious. Making humans more complex is that body language differs from person to person.
Thankfully for pet parents, this isn’t the case. Dogs share a universal body language. Of course, they can’t physically speak to us. (Wouldn’t that make life easier?) Instead, dogs communicate through body language.
The signs can be hard to read. Certain behaviors give mixed signals to those who don’t understand a dog’s body language. So, what do certain pooch body postures mean? How can you help your dog when he’s telling you he’s uncomfortable? Read on for a crash course in Dog Body Language 101.
The Basics of Dog Body Language
Before we begin, there are a few basic ideas to understand. In order to read your dog’s body language, you must pay attention to every detail. The most important places to look are your dog’s ears, tail and face.
These spots are where your dog actively shows his emotions. Start simple, watch your dog while you’re both relaxing at home. Watch his reactions to certain noises. Does his head lift when someone approaches the door? Does his tail wag when you talk to him?
You may start to notice some patterns. When presented with positive stimulus, your dog behaves one specific way all the time. He behaves in a very different way when exposed to something negative. Knowing these patterns can help you interpret your dog’s body language.
Understanding your dog’s body language will tell you his intentions. Cesar Millan explains that a dog’s emotion is shown through his/her body language. Their intention is shown through motion. Their emotions influence their motion.
A dog may dart forward suddenly, but that motion has different meanings with different emotions. In a playful dog, darting forward means he’s excited to play. In an aggressive dog, darting forward means he’s ready to attack.
To understand their intention, you must read your dog’s body language before the motion happens. Knowing what your dog is feeling prevents dangerous situations. Learning what your dog’s body language means creates a deeper relationship between you and your dog.
What Common Dog Body Language Means
You may have noticed certain behaviors in your dog(s). There are some common postures in a dog’s body language that are easy to spot. All dogs exhibit these behaviors.
Your dog’s body language
The Play Bow
You’ve probably been to a dog park and seen your dog approach other dogs. They go through the typical dog greeting. Then you might notice your dog suddenly put his butt in the air with his front legs forward. His tail is wagging as he watches the other dog. A few barks are exchanged, and play begins.
What you just saw is what behaviorists call the Play Bow. This posture signals to other dogs “Hey I want to play!” All dogs display this behavior. They even do this with humans!
You can even “speak” to your dog using the same body language. Get down on the ground and do your best imitation of a play bow. Your dog will respond by playing with you.
A Wagging Tail
Most people think a wagging tail means your dog is happy. In many cases, this is true. The tail wag can signify your dog is happy to see you or another canine buddy.
Dogs wag their tails when they’re excited. You’ve seen this when coming home from work. Their tails wag when you pick them up from the groomer. If their body is either relaxed or wiggling, a wagging tail equals a happy dog.
However, a wagging tail can mean the opposite. If the tail is low and lashing, the dog is fearful and unsure. A wagging tail held high is a dog’s way of saying “Stay away. I may bite if you get too close.” Taking in the rest of your dog’s body language helps tell you what the tail wagging really means.
Unfortunately, not all your dog’s body language is as easy to read. Combinations of behaviors mean different things. Your dog expresses emotion in various ways. Let’s go through more complex dog body language.
Alert Dog Body Language
An alert dog is on the lookout for something. He’s trying to determine his next course of action. This alert state only lasts until your dog makes his decision.
Alertness is shown in a forward body posture. Your dog’s ears will be perked and forward. He’ll be frozen, staring at whatever caught his attention. His eyes are wide and focused.
The mouth is shut tight. The tail may slowly move from side to side, but it will be in a horizontal posture.
With this body language, your dog is telling you he sees something. He’s trying to figure out what he should do next. Staying calm is the best thing to do in this situation.
Being nervous or tense will rub off on your dog. Be alert but calm. If you know your dog well enough, you’ll know what his next reaction will be.
Happy and Relaxed Dog Body Language
Happy dogs have loose posture. Their tails and whole back-end are wagging so hard they may fall off. The ears and mouth are relaxed.
Your dog may even “smile” at you. His mouth will open but be relaxed. His soft eyes stare up at you as if he’s saying he loves you.
Relaxed dogs also have loose posture. They’re more than likely sitting or lying down. Your dog may even expose his belly. He’s comfortable being in a vulnerable position.
Or he’s asking for a belly rub! Just make sure you are alert to his body language. A happy dog can easily become scared or nervous.
Stressed and Fearful Dog Body Language
Dogs show they are stressed in a few ways. Their ears pull back to the base of the head. They keep their bodies low to the ground.
Oftentimes, they’ll lift one paw to disengage from the situation. They tuck their tail between their legs. A dog will lick his lips and pant from the corner of his mouth.
Your dog will avoid looking at whatever is stressing him out. This is especially true if the stressor is another dog.
Dogs see direct eye contact for long periods of time as a threatening gesture. If the other dog doesn’t back away, your dog may take the submissive approach. He’ll roll over and expose his belly. His tail will still be tucked. He’s telling the other dog that he isn’t a threat. These behaviors show extreme fear.
Many things can make a dog stressed out. Sometimes, it’s because of our own behaviors. Veterinarian Dr. Karen Becker outlines things humans do that stress dogs out.
One common thing is hugging. We can’t resist hugging our dogs. It’s our way of showing affection. That affection gets lost in translation. By hugging your dog, you’re invading his personal space. By holding him, you’re keeping him from running away.
Aggressive Dog Body Language
An alert dog can become an aggressive dog in response to certain stimuli. Aggression takes two forms: fearful aggression and dominant aggression. Posture is the main difference.
A dog who is low to the ground with his tail tucked displays fear aggression. A dog standing tall with his tail high and fluffed up displays dominant aggression.
The fearful dog is trying to get out of a situation. Unlike a fearful dog, the aggressive dog will lash out if pushed too far. His ears are pulled back as is the corner of his mouth. He will bare his teeth and may growl.
His eyes are wide and dilated. It is best to leave the dog alone until he calms down.
The dominant dog has his ears forward. His hackles are raised, and his tail is fluffed up. His teeth are bared, wrinkling the top of his muzzle. The dog feels confident that he can fight whatever caused the aggression
If you come across a dog displaying this body language, do not approach. Do not run away. Stay calm and confident and back away slowly. Do not turn your back on the dog until you are out of danger.
Other Ways Dogs Talk To Us
Dogs use more than just body language to tell us how they’re feeling. There are other behaviors to look for when trying to understand how dogs communicate. Most involve vocalization, but you can also tell a lot about a dog by how it sleeps. They also tell us things just by looking at us.
You might be a bit creeped out by your dog’s constant staring. We’re creeped out when people do it. But your dog doesn’t intend to be creepy. By staring, they’re telling you that they want your attention and affection. Take this as an open opportunity to give them some love.
This is by far one of the cutest things your dog can do (Second only to the puppy-eyes). A head tilt is a dog’s way of trying to listen. By tilting their heads, they’re focusing on the direction a sound is coming from. Talking to them might make them turn their head.
It turns out that yawning is contagious in dogs too! If you yawn and your dog yawns after, it means he’s been watching you. It’s just another way that dogs communicate how much they love you.
Rising Pitch Barks
Dogs have so many vocalizations that it can be hard to keep track of what they mean. You’ll learn your dog’s specific behaviors as you spend more time with him. One particular bark means fun times ahead. If your dog’s bark starts low, then raises in pitch, it means she’s ready to play. Combine this with a play-bow and she’s super excited to play.
Sleeping with “Crazy” Legs
We’ve all seen dogs asleep on their backs at silly angles. Their feet are up in the air and they are extremely relaxed. This pose has a deeper meaning, though. By exposing their belly, your pup is vulnerable. They would only do this if they felt comfortable and secure. If your dog does this often, it means they trust you and their surroundings.
Sleeping on Their Side
Your pup is also exposing their stomach in this pose. They are relaxed and comfortable in their home. This is a big win for owners of new dogs!
Dog Body Language Resources
If you still want to learn more about your dog’s body language, there are many resources available. Dog trainers like Victoria Stilwell provide reading material and educational articles for pet parents.
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