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Reading Dog Body Language

Learn How to Interpret Your Dog's Expressions

By Mary Kearl. April 09, 2013 | See Comments

Reading Dog Body Language

Dogs can express themselves in all sorts of movements, from ears to tail. Learn how to know what your dog is telling you with their body language.

Do you want to be able to better communicate with your dog? Learning the language of canines—both verbal and nonverbal, takes just a bit of basic knowledge, and some practice with your pet. Here’s what you’ll need to know to understand dog body language.

Take note that while each dog movement and sound can indicate a mood or message your pet is trying to convey, understanding the sum of all your dog’s actions and body language in context is important for getting a clearer picture of your loved one’s state of mind. That’s why practice with your own pet is key—the more you learn about your dog and their reactions, the better you’ll be able to read them.

Dog Tail Movements

A wagging tail is generally assumed to indicate happiness, which it can, but it can also signal aggression.

  • The happy movement is easy-going and side to side or faster and in circles when your pup is really ecstatic.
  • The aggressive movement typically involves a raised tail, moved stiffly side to side. The rest of the dog’s body language will likely indicate your pet is on edge if this is the case.

When your pooch is at ease, the tail will likely be in a resting position, wherever it hangs naturally. “With the tail between the legs” is an expression for a reason: dogs usually do this when they’re feeling really low.

Ears and Your Dog's Mood

Since canine ears vary, so does their ability to communicate effectively. Typically, dogs’ ears are at ease when the dogs are at ease. Perked ears, perched atop the head, indicate canine curiosity or, depending on the context, aggression. Pulling the ears back a bit is like waving an “I come in peace” sign in the dog world. When you see ears pressed down, your pup may be afraid or indicating submission.

Cues from Dog Eyes

Like humans, dogs can get wide-eyed or bug-eyed out of fear or anger. Alternately, eyes can shrink from being afraid. Squinting may indicate pain, feelings of discomfort, or submissiveness.

Where your dog’s eyes are pointed matters, too. While dogs don’t typically look at each other eye to eye, they adapt to this human behavior with people. When your dog is relaxed and looks you in the eye, all is well. If the gaze is a stare, and accompanied by tensing of the face, it may be a sign of aggression. If your dog won’t look you in the eye, your pet may be afraid or indicating submission. Should you start to see more of the “whites” of your pet’s eyes, as your dog turns away from you, this may be the precursor to a tantrum.

Face and Teeth

As you probably know, a slightly open-mouthed (seemingly smiling) dog is probably content and relaxed. When a dog pulls her or his lips back, it may be out of fear or feeling submissive. This may be followed by sticking the tongue out and licking an approaching person or dog.

When a dog shows teeth, it doesn’t always mean aggression. Some dogs do so, with their head lowered, to indicate submission. An aggressive dog, in comparison, will likely contort the muzzle and breathe heavily at the same time.

Body Posture and Movements

Like cats and humans, dogs can shrink and cower in fear. This same body language can also indicate submission.

Dominant dogs, in contrast, will stand tall and proud, with muscles tightening. Aggressive dogs’ body language will appear similar, but they will also vocalize their intent.

Playful dogs may flatten their front paws and raise their haunches in the air, with a tail raised and waving side to side, poised and ready for a romp.

Sounds

There’s no one reason dogs bark. They do so to give warnings, during play or when anxious or bored. If your dog wants to do something, but is being prevented from doing so, whining may ensue. This noise may also indicate feelings of anxiety. Watch out when you hear dog growls; somebody wants to demonstrate their dominance or aggression or be territorial. Pack animals by nature, dogs who howl are signaling longing for their family members.

Body Clues of Dog Aggression

When dogs assess their surroundings to get a sense of a situation, they’re likely to straighten up their tails, stiffen their muscles, look intently, and move their ears and body slightly forward.

Signs of a dog on the defense: With a head low to the ground, weight pushed to the rear, hair raised, tail lowered or tucked, mouth stiff, teeth showing, and nose twitching, this dog is on the lookout, but is prepared to back away.

Signs of a dog on the offense: Staring intently, with tensed ears and a tight mouth, the dog’s teeth may be visible and the nose may twitch. The animal may growl, bark and move her or his body forward. The hair on the back will likely be raised.

Stay tuned to your dog’s moods, and you’ll be reading their body language in no time.

More on Dog Behavior and Training

OCD in Dogs
20 Dog Commands You Need to Know
How to Quiet a Barking Dachshund

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