Dogs | October 5, 2016

Your Dog’s Body Language: What is he trying to tell you?

Val Culpin
By: Val Culpin
Small Puppy

It’s a well known fact that your dog’s body language is very effective at communicating his feelings. All too often we humans don’t hear what our furry family members are trying to tell us, which can result in some unpleasant consequences and sometimes lost opportunities for a pleasant bonding experience. Do you know what your dog is trying to tell you?

Volumes have been written about pet body language and there are many experts in the field who can help you figure out the finer nuances, but here are a few of the more obvious ones that will help you to understand your dog’s mood. (Don’t worry, we’ll address cat body language in a future blog!).

For dogs, taking careful note of things like ear position, pupil dilation, facial tension (particularly around the muzzle and forehead), tail carriage and body weight distribution, can help you to detect whether a dog is relaxed or fearful, or acting in a submissive or dominant manner.

  • If your dog’s head is erect, ears up with a relaxed wagging tail and his mouth is slightly open and relaxed with even weight distribution on all four legs, you can assume all is right with the world and he is in a relaxed mood.
  • When a dog is interested by something relatively pleasurable, his tail will be carried a little higher and will loosely wag. The muzzle will be relaxed and the tongue may be seen. This body language may be displayed to subordinates in order to express a higher ranking pack position.
  • A stiff, raised tail with hackles up, ears erect and tilted forward, and eyes staring is cause to pay more attention to this dog. His lips may curl, he may bare his teeth and he may charge. Give this dog a wide berth and back away.
  • Submission is shown with a lowered head, with eyes half closed and blinking, ears back, a low hanging or tucked tail, a partially closed mouth with a darting tongue, and possibly a raised paw. This dog is acknowledging your or another dog’s higher social ranking.
  • If a submissive dog rolls over and exposes his belly, he’s saying ‘Uncle!” His ears will be back, his head turned away and he won’t look you in the eye. His tail may be tucked and he may even lose a little urine. You are acknowledged as the boss and your pup is trying to pacify you.
  • Fear biting can occur when a dog is clearly signalling to you he does not wish to be approached. Warning signals are dilated pupils, ears back, mouth tense and often snarling, hackles up and tail down and stiff. The posture will be low or crouched with most of the weight on the rear end of the dog. Another dog to give a wide berth to.
  • It’s good to remember that most dogs do not like to be looked directly in the eye. A more dominant dog will consider this a challenge and may lash out. This is how many children each year get bitten in the face, along with a child’s refusal to release their pet from a tight hold. Resource guarding by the family dog is another cause of many childhood dog bites as well. Children should be taught to respect their dog’s space and understand when it is and is not okay to approach a dog.
  • Lip licking is another little known form of body language for your dog. If you notice your dog licking his lips a lot when there is no food around, he is sending you a message. Lip licking is meant as an appeasement or pacifying gesture when your dog is under stress or uncomfortable about something in his environment which he perceives as a threat. While lip licking is usually interpreted as a submissive gesture, it is a sign that your pup is stressed and you should back off to give him more space to feel comfortable. Persistence of the aggressiveness your dog is perceiving could lead to defensive behaviours you don’t want.

These are just the very basic things you need to know about your dog’s body language. There are many many resources available to help you understand the finer points of canine communication. Are you listening to your dog?