This is the first installment in a series we’re calling “Dog Talk.” Dogs communicate much differently that we do as humans. And as the (sometimes) smarter species, it’s our duty to learn their language, not the other way around.
Dogs communicate more with body language than sound (yes, that includes barking). Dogs use their bodies to communicate in sometimes subtle and sometimes very obvious ways. Paying attention to all of these “body alerts” or “body language signals” can give you incredible insight to how your dog is feeling at any given time. Some signals are very subtle so it is a very good idea and responsible ownership to learn to read them!
Here are some of the “body language signals” to watch for with your dog. HOWEVER, it is important to remember, when assessing a dog’s mental state, ALL body language signals must be considered together! You can’t determine the mental state of a dog by only one body language signal!
- Ears. When your dog is feeling calm and relaxed, the ears will just be “hanging out” or to be more scientific “neutrally positioned,” i.e., just floppy if he has big ears or lying back if that’s the way they are shaped. Look at his ears when he is asleep to determine his or her “natural” ear position. When a dog goes into “alert mode” by a sound or even a smell and begins to hone in on something, he will raise his ears as if his brain (staff sergeant brain we’ll call it) has given him the command “attention!” Often times, when a dog feels afraid, insecure or is trying to signal another dog or a human that he is being “submissive” he will lay his ears back against the sides of his head.
- Eyes. You can also look into your dog’s eyes and get an idea of his mental state. If he is feeling “chill” his eyes will just be open and soulful as most dogs’ eyes are! If your dog gets anxious or afraid he might appear to be squinting or “narrowing” his eyes. If your dog fixates you with a stare, this is a possible warning or even a threat signal. THIS DOES NOT APPLY if he is responding to the “watch” command given to him. A properly trained dog will stare directly into your eyes for as long as you tell him to! In that situation, staring at you is a GOOD THING because it means he is focusing on you and only you and waiting for you to tell him what you expect of him next!
- Mouth. A dog’s mouth is almost always open to some degree. They can’t sweat so they pant. They like to hang their tongues out (you know, just because it’s awesome). If they are nice and cool and resting or sleeping, their mouths might be closed. Sometimes it is difficult to tell for sure whether your dog is afraid or feeling aggressive (which can also come from fear). If your dog is afraid, he may pull his lips back at the corners to varied degrees. Dogs in an aggressive state of mind (which can also be from fear) will often snarl (pulling back their lips, wrinkling their snout and showing their teeth, usually accompanied by a deep growl.) Dogs also smile, yes SMILE, so be sure to look closely at all the signs he or she is giving you!
- Freezing (like a statute). If your dog “freezes” in a sort of dominant stance (chest up, leaning forward), BE ON TOP OF THE SITUATION IMMEDIATELY AND REMOVE YOUR DOG AND CALM HIM! That stance is a sign that he is preparing to go into full offense mode and is a DANGER SIGN! However, if his ears are back, he’s making himself lower than normal, this is a calming signal that usually occurs when being greeted by other dogs.
- Hackles Up. A dog’s hackles (the hair that puffs up on its back) doesn’t usually mean aggression. The hackles are essentially doggie goose bumps. So when they experience something that really stimulates a one of their senses, hackles often go up. Most of the time it’s an indication of a “guarding the pack” instinct.
- Tail Wagging the Dog. Tail wagging DOES NOT always mean your dog is happy or “I’m so glad to see you.” If the dog’s tail is wagging fast or is just stiff and being held high – this could be a sign that the dog is feeling very agitated and may become aggressive out of natural defense or protection instincts. If the tail is straight up and ticking back and forth like a metronome, it’s usually means the dog is being dominant and “claiming the area.” (This doesn’t always apply to breeds with naturally erect tails like Huskies.
There are a multitude of other body language communications from dogs, as well as verbal communications. If you really want to learn to read your dog’s signals and “dog words” I recommend Canine Good Citizenship and obedience classes. Please feel free to visit our website SeeSpotSit.org for more information!