How many times have you found yourself wishing you could talk to your dog? Perhaps to tell them you love them, perhaps to find out what’s wrong, or even just to progress their training happily and successfully. Well, Man’s Best Friend wants to communicate with us too. Thankfully, our four-legged heroes use a lot of dog body language to try and tell us what they are thinking and feeling. We just need to learn to recognise those cues.
Here, we dissect the possibilities behind five common examples of dog body language on your journey to good canine communication.
Dog Body Language: The Wags
We’re starting with a tricky one: the tail. Yes, wags are generally the average dog trainer’s goal. A wagging tail most often represents happiness and playfulness, especially when accompanied by a relaxed face and posture. In all likelihood, the faster the wag, the more excitable the dog is.
But there’s more to the tail than wagging. Indeed, sometimes wagging can represent hesitancy or aggression. To be able to tell the difference, you’ll need to first identify your dog’s natural, comfortable tail position. Some naturally hold their tail between their legs when they are relaxed, but other breeds will tuck their tail to show fear or discomfort. In these difficult-to-read situations, take dog posture and other dog body language into consideration. For example, an erect tail can sometimes signify play and excitement but when combined with a tight posture and alert facial muscles, it is more likely to signify uncertainty or preparedness for confrontation.
Dog Body Language: The Smile
This brings us to our dogs’ lovely smiles. The face is a great key to understanding how our dogs are feeling when the accompanying dog body language is down to interpretation. Dogs will sometime relax their mouths into what you and I might call a smile when they are feeling comfortable. When accompanied with normal eye contact and relaxed posture, this is a pretty sure sign of a happy dog.
A smile, however, can also be accompanied by a lot of panting. In these situations, especially where play has occurred, it is vital to make sure you’re dog isn’t overheating by providing relaxing breaks, shade, and a constant source of fresh water. In more extreme circumstances, dogs can draw back their lips as a sign of discomfort, fear and potential aggression. It’s vital this isn’t confused for a smiling dog welcoming play. Once again, when it comes to the smile, it’s important to account for the breed and your dog’s individual personality. Dogs that are more anxious might develop more acute signals. If you don’t know the dog you’re working with it’s better to err on the side of caution and give space or remove potential stressors, if in doubt.
Dog Body Language: The Side-Eye
Just as the slight squint of a happy dog will indicate its feelings, so the eyes can also show discomfort. Remember that direct eye contact can be incredibly intimidating to a dog. Something to look out for looks a bit like a side-eye, to you and me. If a dog is comfortable and trusts you, it might feel happy to make direct eye contact. Conversely, if a dog looks at you without turning its head, showing the whites of the eyes in a crescent moon shape, it might be telling you that it’s wary of something in its environment.
Look at this dog’s expression. Observe the sideways glance upwards, with whites of the eyes on display, accompanied by the ears, which are pinned back. Likewise, the dog is holding its mouth in what looks to be a non-relaxed position. Combining this with the fact it appears to be hiding, we can observe that this dog is unhappy. Depending on the situation, a trainer will ideally remove the stressor and give this dog some space to relax.
Dog Body Language: The Licks
This brings us to those lovely licks you might get every now and again. Yes, it is true that sometimes your dog is trying to show affection and care when they lick you, leaving slobber in their wake. However, licking can also be used by a dog as a calming signal. These are behavioural traits that dogs use to communicate in a stressful situation to appease that stress or tension. Licking is a really common example of a calming signal.
For this reason, it’s really important to take context into account when your dog licks you or their lips. If the situation is already calm and their posture is relaxed, you can sit back and enjoy the attention. If the situation is a bit tense, your dog could be telling you they are uncomfortable, by sending you this calming signal. This discomfort might be accompanied by a rigid posture and eye contact avoidance. Yawning is another calming signal that might accompany licking. If your dog is likely not tired, but licks you and proceeds to yawn, check their environment and remove any potential stressors.
Dog Body Language: The Play Bow
So much more than a simple stretch, the play bow is one of the most joyous and common examples of dog body language. The dog will lower its forequarters and stick its hindquarters in the air, often accompanied by wags, eye contact and a relaxed posture. Dogs might direct this at humans and other dogs, alike. This is almost always an indisputable sign that your dog wants to play! So, grab a ball or treats and have some fun!
Please remember that each dog breed is different. Aesthetically, some dogs have been bred to look a certain way depending on their domestic function and so might find some of these behaviours difficult. For example, controversial tail docking practices prevent some dogs from wagging or tucking to show how they feel. Other dogs bred for short snouts might have breathing difficulties and are more likely to pant their way into a smile that doesn’t really mean they’re happy. The spaniel, with its long pendulous ears, is unable to demonstrate alertness by pricking its ears up. Likewise, other dogs breeds with long, thick coats might have difficulties presenting their posture under all that fluff. It’s vital that you spend time observing and getting to know your dog and the dogs you’ll be working with, should you decide to embark on a career as a trainer.
Training yourself to understand dog body language is a process — just like training your pup to sit and stay. So, give yourself time and patience and a lot of treats and you’ll be understanding your dog a little better each day. After all, a little understanding is what all the Very Good Boys and Girls out there deserve.