Understanding Doggie Language
Have you ever wondered if your dog is talking to you? Dogs may not have the ability to speak to us in words, but they do speak to us in body language and sounds. Science tells us that dogs can think and have feelings just like humans. They can feel uncomfortable, afraid, happy or excited. But unlike humans that communicate their feelings through words and touch, dogs communicate primarily through non-verbal body language. By being in tune with your dog’s body language, you can better understand how they feel, what they like and dislike, what they are comfortable with, and what they really enjoy. When we understand what our dogs are communicating to us, we can be better pet parents.
Here are some tips for understanding your dog’s body language and a short guide to how your dog may be communicating with you.
Every dog is an individual, so their method of expression may be different than other dogs.
Dogs use all different parts of their body to express how they feel.
Observe your dog and pay attention to their whole body. Notice their eyes, facial expressions, tail, body movement and posture. Be aware of the surroundings and situation your dog is in. It can give you clues to what your dog may be thinking, feeling, or reacting to.
Learn what different body movements, postures, facial expressions and movements might tell you about how your dog is feeling.
By learning and being aware of how our dog communicates to us, we can remove our dog from stressful and uncomfortable situations and know how to make their lives happier and healthier.
Calming signals are used by dogs to calm themselves down when they are nervous, stressed, fearful, or want to avoid conflict. These signals include licking their lips or nose, yawning when they are not tired, turning their head away (they are not being rude), and scratching when they are not itchy.
Always pay attention to your dog's situation and the surroundings to better understand what these signals may be telling you.
Most of us believe that when a dog’s tail is wagging it means they are happy, but this may not always be the case. They may be scared, anxious, or unsure.
The speed and position of the tail can be an indicators of how they feel. A slow regular speed can indicate they are relaxed and happy while a fast circular “helicopter” movement indicates they are super happy. A tail that is fast and twitching may indicate tension or concern. The tail’s position is another good indicator of their emotions. When their tail is held in a relaxed position they are calm, but when it is down or tucked they may be fearful or concerned. A tail held high may indicate a dog who is confident or one that may be on high alert or excited.
There are several ways a dog uses their eyes to give us clues to how they
feel. When their eyes are almond-shaped with relaxed lids, it generally indicates
they are feeling calm and happy. This is sometimes referred to as soft eyes.
When your dog is looking intently at something with sustained eye contact it may indicate concern, aggression, or resource protecting. This is sometimes called hard eyes.
If your dog is stressed or anxious they will give you the whale-eye where
their pupils are dilated and show the whites of their eyes. Their eyes may also be pointing in the opposite direction of their head.
“Puppy eyes” is when your dog has raised eyebrows and a sustained doe-
eye look. You sometimes see this when they are asking for a treat or
wanting something from their human.
Your dog uses it’s mouth to give you signals of stress and happiness.
A happy dog will have their mouth relaxed and be either be closed or slightly open with a relaxed tongue. Their brow will also be smooth and relaxed.
When your dog is anxious their mouth may be tight and closed or open. They may be panting and there might be visible tension in their face and their body.
If your dog’s mouth is open and showing their teeth, they likely feel threatened or are highly concerned. Their body and face will also be tense and they may be snarling or growling. Also pay attention to their ears. If their ears are forward, they are likely feeling confident. If their ears are backward, they are probably scared and fearful.
Your dog’s posture and body position can tell a lot about how they feel.
If there’s no visible tension in their face or body and their eyes are soft, they are probably relaxed. They will walk easily with a light step and a relaxed tail.
An anxious, scared dog or one that feels unsafe will have their tails tucked, their body will be tense, their head be held low and they may shake or shiver.
Dogs are often playful and will show when they are receptive to play by exhibiting the “play bow.” This is when their elbows are on the ground with their butts pointing up and their tail wagging. They may also have exaggerated facial features and air biting. When they turn or walk away, shake off or take a drink of water then they’re ready for a break before playing again.
Understanding how and what our dogs are communicating to us, will let us know what our dogs like and dislike, what makes them happy and what makes them stressed or scared. It will make us better pet parents and help us strengthen our human-doggie bond.
For more information on understanding doggie language, check out Lily Chin’s book, Doggie Language: A Dog Lover’s Guide to Understanding Your Best Friend. It’s a handy book with great illustrations.
Check out these online articles on dog communication and body language:
“How To Read Dog Body Language”
“Decoding the Canine Mind” which discusses a scientific study that used brain imaging to discover what dogs are thinking.
View this TED Talk, “What Emotions Look Like in a Dog’s Brain,” by Dr. Gregory Berns who conducted a scientific study to understanding what dogs are thinking and what they think of us. https://www.ted.com/talks/gregory_berns_what_emotions_look_like_in_a_dog_s_brain/transcript?language=en