by Rosie Schurman, CPDT-KA and Dog Adventures Northwest Trainer Dogs share a common language just like humans do: body language!

Body language is how dogs communicate with one another, avert fights, and solicit play… and it’s also largely how they try to communicate with us humans. In this post, we’ll discuss what your dog is trying to say!

Ears

One of the most noticeable features of a dog is her ears, and they can tell us quite a bit about how your pup is feeling.

  • When a dog is relaxed, so are her ears. They move around, following sounds, but the muscles aren’t tense and the movements are smooth.
  • Ears that are perked forward tell us the dog is alert and focused.
  • Ears pulled back towards the head are an indication of fear or anxiety.
  • And those odd, sideways ears that look like airplane wings? That’s an ambivalent dog saying, “I’m not sure about this, give me some time to decide how I feel!”

Tail

A dog’s tail is an obvious indicator of her mood, and can send some pretty clear signals.

  • The loose and relaxed wagging tail is a content tail. Generally, this tail wag is at (or slightly above) the level of the dog’s back. Your dog is telling you that she is feeling comfortable and wants to engage.
  • An upright and stiffly wagging tail is often mistaken for a happy wag. However, this version of a tail wag actually indicates that the dog is uncomfortable, probably a bit overstimulated, and might need some space. Think of this tail not as a happy wag, but as an “engine rev.”
  • The tucked tail is one we’ve all seen. It’s a dog’s way of saying she’s not feeling safe and wants out of the situation. A tucked tail is usually seen in more timid dogs, but it can also be a sign of significant fear, even in confident pooches.

Face

A dog’s face can tell us a lot about her mood.

  • “Hard eyes” — or strong, sustained eye contact — is a sign that a dog wants space.
  • Averted eyes are a dog’s attempt to diffuse a stressful situation, assure other dogs she’s not a threat, and give herself a break from stimulation.
  • A tight mouth with tense lip muscles is a sign that a dog is not comfortable with her surroundings.
  • Panting, in the absence of heat or exertion, is an indicator of stress, as is excess drooling, lip licking, yawning, and sneezing.
  • Tiny “huffs” might be an attempt to stir up scent, so that a dog can get more information about the other pooches and humans nearby.

Body

What’s your dog’s body look like? Some dogs are naturally looser and others more stiff, but every dog has a range of stances that communicate a great deal.

  • A comfortable dog has relaxed, loose posture and is moving around to engage with her surroundings.
  • An upright, stiff stance with chest forward indicates the dog is uncomfortable. She is most likely trying to tell another dog (or human) to slow down or give her some space.
  • Crouching and leaning back is often a sign of stress and fear.
  • An alert crouch may be a sign that your dog is ready to jump, pounce, or run fast. This is most often seen in herding breeds.
  • Raised hackles indicate arousal, and may be seen in intense play as well as at times of fear or other stress. Raised hackles are patches of erect hair visible on a dog’s neck and down the center of its back, even occasionally at the base of its tail.
  • And what about that goofy, feet-forward-booty-raised bow? It’s playtime!

Calming Signals

Dogs commonly display “calming signals,” or overt indications that they are trying to either diffuse a situation or to calm themselves down. These signals are very important for us humans to recognize, so that we can make sure our pups have backup if they feel they need to leave a situation or get help reducing tension with another dog.

  • A dog that does some Intense ground-sniffing, looking in random directions, random scratching, and/or self-grooming — for no apparent reason — may very well be exhibiting “displacement behavior.” These behaviors allow the dog to expend some of her nervous energy in a safe way, and also to pay attention to a safer stimulus than whatever is overwhelming her or making her uncomfortable.
  • A pup with a dropped head and averted eyes is likely saying, “everything’s fine, I’m not a threat!”

The more we can recognize how our pooch is feeling in different situations, the more we can tailor her life to her particular comfort levels. Furthermore, if we can see trouble brewing, we might be able to avert it. Did your dog stiffen, raise her tail like a flag, and start giving hard eye contact to that goofy, annoying youngster at the dog park, for example? That would be a good time to separate the dogs and find a more suitable playmate for your pup!

Being able to recognize the early signs that your dog is feeling unsure of particular stimuli can also give you a head-start in working to make positive changes to her environment… and help your companion feel more confident, inquisitive, and engaged.

Understanding canine body language sometimes feels a little mystifying, but we are here to help! Just let our team know if we can work with your and your pup through training to help strengthen the communication between the two of you. We are happy to be your pup’s translator until you learn more of the language!

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