Our dogs constantly communicate with us through body language, but we often don’t notice or understand what they’re telling us. By becoming familiar with your dog’s body language, you can interpret how she’s feeling and respond to her needs.
Dogs are excellent communicators. They certainly vocalize, but most of their communication is done through subtle body language. Unfortunately, that body language is often overlooked or misunderstood. When a dog’s communication attempts are consistently ignored — or worse, punished — she will eventually stop communicating. The better you understand your dog’s body language, the better equipped you are to interpret how she’s feeling and address any problems.
Subtle stress signals
When a dog is stressed, he’ll first communicate his discomfort through body language. For example, most dog bites do not happen out of the blue; usually, the dog communicates his stress long before he resorts to biting. Recognizing these early signs of stress is important because it allows you to remove your dog from the situation and prevent escalation.
Some stress-induced behaviors are very subtle, and therefore easily overlooked. Your dog may display them when he is uncertain or uncomfortable about a particular situation. Pay attention, and you will be surprised to see how frequently your dog is communicating with you, as well as with other people and dogs. You may also discover things your dog doesn’t particularly like that you weren’t aware of. For instance, many dogs do not enjoy being hugged and will become stiff or look away.
Observe your four-legged friend closely in a variety of situations. Does she turn away when an unfamiliar dog approaches her? Maybe she becomes stiff when someone bends over her or grabs her? Does she yawn repeatedly when a child is handling her?
9 common misconceptions about canine body language
Dogs have been part of our lives for a long time, and some misconceptions have been passed on from generation to generation. Often, we anthropomorphize our dogs, but treating them as if they’re human can work to their disadvantage, since their communication and thought process differ from ours.
Here are nine examples of canine body language that frequently lead to misunderstandings:
1. WHEN A DOG LOOKS “GUILTY”, HE KNOWS HE DID SOMETHING WRONG
Dogs do not feel guilty about anything they did “wrong”, like chewing slippers. They will crouch and avoid eye contact in response to scolding, but they are merely trying to appease.
2. A WAGGING TAIL IS A SIGN OF HAPPINESS
Not every wagging tail means happiness or friendliness. The position of the tail and the speed of the wagging communicate different messages. To determine the meaning of different tail positions, we need to know the natural or neutral position of the dog’s tail, which can vary depending on the breed.
A friendly, happy dog will wag his tail freely, sometimes also wiggling his hips or rotating the tail in full circles. The body is soft and relaxed. Conversely, a stiff body with a fast-wagging or vibrating tail in a vertical position indicates high arousal that could include aggression. A dog that wags his tail slightly when around a new person indicates he is insecure about the meeting.
3. A DOG THAT ROLLS OVER WANTS A BELLY RUB
True, your dog may invite you to give her a belly rub in this position. But if her body is stiff, her mouth tightly closed, her ears directed back and down, and/or her tail between her hind legs, she is putting herself in a submissive position out of fear or discomfort, conveying that she would rather be left alone. Also watch for one bent front leg.
4. RAISED HACKLES MEAN AGGRESSION
Raised hackles — also called piloerection — are a sign of arousal. This signal may indicate aggression but can also be a sign of fear, uncertainty, surprise, or excitement.
5. WHEN A DOG LOOKS AWAY, SHE’S IGNORING YOU
Your dog is not always ignoring you when she looks away. She may look away in an attempt to appease you if you seem upset with her. Or she may be frightened of something and wants to avoid the scary stimulus.
6. IF A DOG DOESN’T COME QUICKLY WHEN CALLED, HE’S BEING STUBBORN
Even if you’ve taught your dog a reliable recall, he may sometimes move slowly when you call him back to you. This behavior annoys a lot of people because they think their dogs are disobedient. Ask yourself if you called your dog in an angry or impatient tone. If so, his slow movements are an attempt to appease you. The angrier your voice, the slower he will move. He may also lower his body while walking towards you.
7. YOUR DOG LICKS YOUR FACE BECAUSE SHE LOVES YOU
When a dog licks your face, it is not necessarily to show affection but to appease you. Dogs lick the faces of other dogs for the same reason. Your dog might lick your face after you’ve done something she feels a bit uncomfortable with, such as cleaning her ears or applying eye drops.
8. IF A DOG SNIFFS THE GROUND OR SCRATCHES HIMSELF INSTEAD OF DOING WHAT HE’S ASKED, HE’S IGNORING YOU
Your dog may sometimes sniff the ground or scratch himself after you ask him to do something. He may be distracted by an interesting smell, but most often he’s not willfully ignoring you. Instead, this is his way of thinking and processing. You may see this behavior when you teach your dog something new. He may sniff the ground for a while or stop and scratch himself, then all of a sudden do what you asked for. You can compare this behavior to the fidgeting we sometimes engage in when we think, such as scratching our heads or rubbing our chins.
9. DOGS YAWN WHEN THEY ARE TIRED OR BORED
Yawning doesn’t always mean your dog is tired or bored. In certain situations, it can be a sign of stress.
Our dogs constantly communicate with us. Many of their signals are subtle and happen very quickly, so it takes careful observation and practice to recognize them. The more familiar you become with your dog’s body language, the better equipped you are to respond to her needs and interpret how she’s feeling. In fact, learning about canine body language is one of the kindest things you can do for your dog!