Dog Body Signs
Learn, Read and Understand your Dog's Body Language
Communicate with Your Dog
DOG BODY LANGUAGE
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What is your dog trying to tell you? Dogs have a language that allows them to communicate their emotional state and their intentions to others around them. Although dogs do use sounds and signals, much of the information that they send is through their body language, specifically their facial expressions and body postures.
Understanding what your dog is saying can give you a lot of useful information, such as when your dog is spooked and nervous about what is going on, or when your dog is edgy and might be ready to snap at someone. You do have to look at the dog's face and his whole body. To help you, I have created a sort of visual version of a Berlitz phrase book to allow you to interpret the eight most important messages your dog is sending to you.
1. Relaxed Approachable
This dog is relaxed and reasonably content. Such a dog is unconcerned and unthreatened by any activities going on in his immediate environment and is usually approachable.
Checking Things Out
If the dog has detected something of interest, or something unknown, these signals communicate that he is now alert and paying attention while he is assessing the situation to determine if there is any threat or if any action should be taken.
3. Dominant Aggressive
This is a very dominant and confident animal. Here he is not only expressing his social dominance, but is also threatening that he will act aggressively if he is challenged.
4. Fearful and Aggressive
This dog is frightened but is not submissive and may attack if pressed. A dog will generally give these signals when he is directly facing the individual who is threatening him.
5. Stressed and Distressed
This dog is under either social or environmental stress. These signals, however, are a general "broadcast" of his state of mind and are not being specifically addressed to any other individual.
6. Fearful and Worried
This dog is somewhat fearful and is offering signs of submission. These signals are designed to pacify the individual who is of higher social status or whom the dog sees as potentially threatening, in order to avoid any further challenges and prevent conflict.
7. Extreme Fear Total Submission
This dog is indicating total surrender and submission. He is trying to say that he accepts his lower status by groveling before a higher ranking or threatening individual in the hopes of avoiding a physical confrontation.
Here we have the basic invitation to play. It may be accompanied by excited barking or playful attacks and retreats. This set of signals may be used as a sort of "punctuation mark" to indicate that any previous rough behaviour was not meant as a threat or challenge.
UNDERSTANDING YOUR DOG
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1. Observe your dog.
Learning your dog's habits, mannerisms, and movements through observation will allow the process of understanding its communication behavior to feel more natural. There will be plenty of things it does that will make sense to you without explanation. Just as every person is unique, so is your dog. Be aware that much of a dog's language or communication techniques are subtle.
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By learning canine communication, you will be able to respond to any problems your dog expresses before a situation escalates. Not noticing small signs of stress or unhappiness can soon lean to more aggressive or distressed behaviors.
Remember that this is a two-way learning process. Dogs have to learn our behavioral cues as well, and you should be careful about your own gestures and posture. Dogs also do not understand English. It is important that you teach your dog what you mean by "no" or "sit". Just saying "sit" over and over again won't make him learn it, and will make him think it's just part of the random nonsense you say during the day. Luring your dog into a sit position and then rewarding them heavily for doing that task will make him eager to sit, and then saying the word as he sits will make him connect the dots that the word "sit" means "putt your butt on the floor".
Note that a dog's ability to signal may be hampered by the breed in question. For example, if your dog has squat ears or a docked tail, some of the signals may not apply to him/her.
2. Know your dog's response to eye contact.
Consider how you feel when someone stares at you directly rather than using normal eye contact. Just as you find it confronting, dogs also feel confused and threatened by direct head-on staring because it is a threat stance for them. A dog that looks away in this situation is actually being polite and is seeking to avoid confrontation. Alternately, training your dog to make eye contact to communicate is extremely helpful for keeping his focus on you.
The most effective form of dog training is called "Positive reinforcement" or "clicker training". It is the most consistently proven type of training shown by scientists, veterinarians and animal behaviorists. Punishment is frowned upon because it is proven that dogs have very short memories, and likely do not connect situations like them pooping on the floor to your dissatisfaction. In fact, dogs do not feel guilt. Their owners simply stop being as mad when they "look guilty" and it becomes rewarding for both the owner and dog for the dog to offer signs of "guilt". The dog learns you dislike it when poop is on the floor and when you come home, they "act guilty" in order to appease you. They do not in fact relate their action of pooping to you being mad.
Clicker training is the idea is to lure your dog into a position and indicate instantly they have done the right thing, and reward them for that behavior. Dog behavior is driven by the most rewarding or least punishing option they have in every situation. If the most rewarding option is to chew on your shoes, they will do so. If you reward them for not chewing on your shoes, they will choose to do that even when you are not around. In contrast, punishment or dominance suggests showing the dog who is boss, which simply results in the behavior being done when you are not around. Dogs are highly reward based and the dominance theory has been disproven. Dogs act in ways that are most rewarding, not based on trying to "dominate" you or another dog. Be the most rewarding thing in your dogs life and he will be eager to do whatever you say.
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Rolling over and exposing the belly is a gesture to appease you, and giving a belly rub serves as excellent reinforcement for this behavior. An exposed belly can also indicate passive resistance to a perceived threat.
Mounting or humping can be a sign of stress in a dog, especially where a low confidence dog is trying to establish allegiance with a higher confidence animal. Dogs use a variety of gestures and postures to express discomfort, including excessive/misplaced sneezing or yawning, licking of the lips, avoiding eye contact, cowering, whale eye, seeing the whites or their eye and a stiff body.
When a dog is showing discomfort, the best thing to do is to stop what you are doing and not do it in the future. If you need your dog to be comfortable with something, make it very rewarding by giving them tons of treats and introducing them to the uncomfortable thing slowly. Soon your pooch will be offering to do those things for a treat! A dog can show many emotions with his tail. A wagging tail and wiggly butt mean pure joy. A slowly wagging tail means a cautious nature. A stiff tail held high is a sign of alertness, a low tail is a sign of content. A tucked tail means they are scared.
Learn to interpret your dog's posture.
The ways in which a dog holds its body can tell you a great deal about its mood and emotions. Many of the signals will be subtle and it can take some time to learn all of its expressions but it is well worth the effort.
Identify playful and affectionate behavior. Dogs communicate easy confidence and a desire to play through posture and body signals.
Confident stance: A dog that is feeling confident will stand tall, have its tail up and probably wagging slowly, its ears will either be pricked up or relaxed, and it will generally look relaxed. Its eyes will have smaller pupils as they are also relaxed.
Bowing: Facing you and with head and chest dipped low to the ground, front legs splayed out, and with rear end and tail up is a clear invitation to play. This is known as the "play bow". It can be mistaken by owners as an attack stance but it clearly denotes playtime.
Hip swings: Hip swings or nudges are another sign of play.This involves the dog swinging around another dog and knocking them to the ground using the backside - the end of the dog without teeth! When the dog's rear is presented to you, it is an indication of trust and depending on your dog, it might mean your dog wants a scratch. Wiggling its rear end is a sign of excitement and friendliness.
If a dog is stretching with his butt in the air, front legs and paws stretched out in front, and head close to the ground, he is probably feeling playful. If your dog raises his/her paw to touch your knee or another part of your body, the dog wants to get attention, make a request or ask for something, or indicate a wish to play. The gesture begins as a puppy with kneading associated with obtaining mother's milk but becomes similar to that of offering a hand for a handshake - it's about connecting and friendship.
Repeatedly pawing at the air is often used by puppies as an invitation to play.
If a dog's tail is in a neutral - level with body or slightly lower, he is most likely feeling secure and friendly.
If your dog's tail is fiercely wagging and his/her tail up, he/she is feeling mischievous and inclined to bother and annoy you or a fellow canine! It could also signal swatting away another animal.
If your dog is slowly or slightly wagging his/her tail and watching you, he/she is relaxed but alert and is anticipating, ready to play.
Interpret discomfort or unease.
Knowing when your dog is uncomfortable or feeling insecure can help you meet the animal's needs and provide comfort and reassurance when necessary.
A dog who is frightened or insecure may cower or crouch down. A slight crouch can denote submissiveness or nervousness. A similar stance can be an arched back, slightly bent legs, and the tail down (but not tucked under), and looking at what is concerning it.
Pacing can be a sign of nervousness, but it can also be a sign of excitement or boredom. If your dog gets plenty of exercise and entertainment, watch for other signs of nervousness that may accompany the pacing.
A slow tail wag with the tail slightly lowered can indicate that the dog is confused and is asking for an explanation, or is investigating a non-threatening new object.
Recognize warning signs of aggression.
Aggression may lead to unwanted dog fighting or attacks. Recognizing early warning signs of aggression can help your deescalate a situation before it gets worse.
A dog whose tail is lowered or tucked between its legs is showing anxiety, fear, and uncertainty. Wagging can still occur in this situation, which can lead to the misunderstanding that the dog is happy. This position can also indicate a need for reassurance or protection.
A dog that suddenly freezes in the middle of an action is feeling unsure of itself and would rather be left alone, or is preparing for an attack. This is commonplace when a dog is holding a bone - don't get between the dog and its bone!
If your dog leans forward and appears very rigid, he most likely feels aggressive or threatened. This occurs in response to what the dog perceives as a threat or a challenge. The tail will usually be tucked down or under, or wagging in a quick and frantic manner.
When a dog is considering an attack or feels threatened, the whites of his/her eyes will likely show as the dog looks at the perceived threat.
A dog that was showing signs of aggression but who then shakes the head and shoulders may be signaling the end of a certain level of tension, such as being alert to a threat or an anticipated event that doesn't occur.
Watch your dog's face.
Dogs often show how they are feeling with facial expressions. Understanding facial expressions can help you interpret your dog's feelings and communicate with your canine companion.
Smiling: believe it or not, dogs can smile. While it can be difficult to differentiate a smile from a snarl, checking other body language for signs of play or aggression can help you determine whether your dog is happy or feeling aggressive. If everything else adds up to a happy dog, then your dog is smiling, and this means it's happy and relaxed.
Yawning: the meaning of a dog's yawning is dependent on the context, just as it is with humans (humans yawn because we're tired, need more oxygen, we're feeling stressed or embarrassed, or we notice someone else yawning). For dogs, yawning appears to be contagious just as it is with humans. Indeed, if you yawn in front of your dog, it may interpret it either as you being stressed in which case, it will likely turn away from you to give you some space, or it will respond in kind and yawn too. Dogs also yawn as a way to ease tension, to show confusion or when they feel slightly threatened especially when meeting new situations or new dogs or animals.
Mouth position: a dog that has its mouth stretched back, closed or just slightly open, is showing that it is very stressed, in fear, or in pain. This may be accompanied by rapid panting. If its mouth is stretched back and open, it is a neutral or submissive sign. A dog that is alert and content will have its mouth closed or slightly open, with the teeth covered.
Lip licking: if your dog licks its lips in combination with a yawn, this can be a clear indication that it is feeling stressed, under pressure, or facing a threat. It's a commonplace gesture shown by puppies around adults, but the behavior should not continue into adulthood. In mature dogs, licking can also be part of the dog's sexual behavior as it finds chemical signals on grass, carpet, and the genitals of other dogs. A dog that is licking another dog's lips is showing deferring behavior.
Bared teeth: a dog whose lips are curled out and his teeth bared is signaling aggression and an intention to use the teeth for biting. This doesn't mean that every flash of teeth means aggression though, and you must take care to note the other elements. If the teeth are bared and there is no wrinkling of the muzzle, this is a warning and a sign of dominance and territorial defensiveness. If the lips are curled, the teeth are bared, the muzzle is wrinkled, and the dog is snarling, this indicates that the dog is angry and ready to fight, and there is every chance that it will bite.
DOG BODY LANGUAGE SIGNS
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These signs indicate that your dog is uncomfortable with the current situation and there is a need for intervention to prevent pushing the dog to the point of biting, and to make sure your canine friend is happy and not feeling anxious.
One Paw Raised
This is very cute but the dog is not happy and does not want to be petted or bothered. She is worried.
Half Moon Eye
The dog just wants to be left alone. Watch for this one when kids are mauling the dog. This is a common expression in dogs that being hugged. If you see the half moon eye when the kids approach the dog or are interacting with the dog, it's time to intervene and give them all something else to do.
Sometimes dogs are more overt when they feel anxious and want to remove themselves from a situation. Please don't force a dog to stay in situation in which he feels anxious, especially if children are the source of his anxiety. Here are some examples:
the dog gets up and leaves an uncomfortable situation, he may bite rather than leaving one of these days
turning head away
hiding behind person or object
barking and retreating
the dog rolls over on back in submissive way, please don't hurt me!
Other Body Language Signs of Anxiety
tail between legs
tail low and only the end is wagging
tail between legs and wagging
tail down or straight for curly-tailed dog (husky, malamute, pug, chow chow, spitz-type dogs etc.
ears sideways for erect eared dog
ears back and very rapid panting
dog goes into another room away from you and urinates or defecates Please find a professional behavior consultant for help with this.
Signs of Arousal
These signs indicate that your dog is interested in something, or trying to decide on a course of action and is not receptive to attention, such as petting from a child and include:
body rolled forward
tail high may or may not be wagging
slow deliberate tail wag
Signs of a Happy Dog
Signs that indicate that the dog is receptive to attention or wants to play:
panting, relaxed, happy expression
body position relaxed
lying with one paw tucked under
enthusiastic tail wag
tail thumping on floor play bow - front end down, rear end up, tail wagging.
Signs of Imminent Bite
If these signs occur, cease all interaction with dog, look away and give dog the opportunity to leave, do not approach, do not make eye contact, do not talk to the dog. If you are touching the dog, stop and move your hands slowly away. If you are taking something from the dog, let go of it. It is better for him to keep it than for you or a child to get bitten. If you are bending over the dog, slowly straighten up and look away.
dog freezes - becomes suddenly stiff
dog stands with front legs splayed, head low, looking at you
dog curls lip to show teeth
Signs of Aggression
If your dog shows signs of aggression then you should get help from a behavior consultant right away. Signs directed toward you or another person that indicate the need for professional help include the following:
guarding dog's own possessions or resting area, favorite human's possessions against family members or guests - this is a very dangerous situation - children are in immediate danger since they could inadvertently come between dog and a guarded area or object dog may be continually expanding his guarded area or repertoire of guarded objects unbeknownst to you
snap and miss (the miss was intentional and the dog may not miss the next time)
aggressive barking which is not stopped by your request for quiet
lunging on or off the leash, with barking or growling
bite other than playful puppy nipping by a puppy, or accident during rough play
dog raises tail when you or child approach may not apply to breeds with naturally raised or curled tails - e.g. pug, husky, spitz-type breeds etc. dog urinates intentionally in the house or on your possessions in your presence or in the presence of children or guests and shows other signs of pushy or aggressive behavior
When dogs are stressed and nervous they exhibit many different kinds of behavior that either help relieve the stress they are feeling or appease a perceived threat. While dogs like humans, yawn when they are tired, they are also much more likely to yawn when they are nervous. Lip licking does not always mean a dog is hungry or has just eaten either, but is a very clear stress signal that is performed when a dog is nervous or experiencing fear.
Yawning can be a sign that a dog is tired, but it also signals stress
Lip licking or tongue flicking. Dogs lick their lips when nervous
Brief body freezing - the dog is still for a few seconds before reacting
Body freezing - the dog freezes until the threat goes away or he decides to use fight or flight
'Whale Eye' - the dog turns his head away but keeps looking at the perceived threat, showing the whites of his eyes
Head turn - the dog will turn his head away from a fear source as a gesture of appeasement
Furrowed brow, curved eyebrows - caused by facial tension
Tense jaw - the mouth is closed, and the dog is preparing for action
Hugging - a dog will gain comfort by holding onto his owner
Low tail carriage - indicates discomfort and uncertainty
Curved tongue - the tongue is curved at the edges from tension
Raspy, dry-sounding panting - nervousness reduces saliva production
Twitching whiskers - caused by facial tension
Shaking - caused by adrenaline release
Drooling - stress can also cause excessive salivation
Lack of focus - an anxious dog finds learning difficult
Sweaty paws - dogs sweat through their foot pads
Piloerection - the hair on a dog's neck and spine stands on end like human goose bumps, making the dog appear bigger while releasing odor from the glands contained in the dog's hair follicles
Deference language is designed to appease a perceived threat, avoid injury and is crucial for survival. If the dog engages in non-threatening behavior this helps deescalate the negative intentions of another animal or human. Most appeasement behavior is extremely submissive with the dog lowering the body, making it appear smaller and less threatening. Socially appropriate dogs will respond positively to this deference while others often take advantage of what they perceive as weakness.
Head bobbing or lowering
Low tail carriage
Tail tucked between the legs
Curved and lowered body
Stomach flip – the dog flips over quickly, exposing his stomach; he is not asking for a belly rub, but signaling that he is withdrawing from interaction
Dogs are naturally curious animals and the more confident they are, the more they can deal with novelty and change. All dogs will size up any situation to ensure safety using the following language:
Head cocked to one side or the other
Front paw lifted - anticipating what will happen and what the dog should do next
Mouth closed - sizing up the situation in preparation for action
Displacement language helps the dog to self-calm and refocus attention away from them and onto something else. If a perceived or actual threat approaches and the dog is nervous or uncomfortable she will often indulge in behaviors that take the threat's focus away from what could be a negative intention. The threat's attention is diverted onto the behavior the dog is doing, like sniffing the ground or scratching and not actually the dog herself. These behaviors are often performed when the dog needs an outlet for their pent up energy or frustration, but can become compulsive if the outlets are not given. Displacement behaviors can result in compulsive behaviors including excessive spinning or licking.
Shake off - dog will release stress and tension by shaking their bodies as if trying to get water off their backs.
Defensive and Offensive Language
When a dog has to defend herself from an actual or perceived threat she will demonstrate defensive or offensive language in order to keep herself safe. This language manifests itself in behaviors that encourage a threat to keep their distance. If the threat does not back away and the dog has nowhere to go, defensive behavior will turn offensive and the dog will bite. These behaviors are usually easy to recognize and understand.
Body leaning forward
Lips pushed forward and vibrating as the dog growls
Air snapping - the dog snaps in the air to warn something to back away
Snapping with skin contact - also a warning to back away
Fast nip - an immediate bite and release with bruising or slight wound, telling a threat to back off
Deeper bite - a dog that bites with more intensity is intending to harm
Bite and hold - intent to harm
Bite, hold, and shake - intent to harm and potentially to kill. Some dogs will bite, hold, shake, and disembowel stuffed toys, simulating the killing of prey; while this is prevalent among dogs with high prey drive, even dogs with low drive can indulge in behavior of this type. If your dog likes to disembowel stuffed toys, this doesn't mean he wants to do the same with people or other animals. Sadie loves to disembowel toys, but she is incredibly gentle with people, especially children. Wagging tail - again, a wagging tail does not always mean a happy dog
Hard, staring eyes.
There is nothing better than being with a happy dog. The body is fluid and relaxed, the mouth is slightly open with tongue hanging to the side and all the signals a dog gives off communicate joy, confidence and a desire to invite play and attention.
Mouth slightly open, tongue relaxed and lolling to one side.
Small body freezes during play.
Play bow - this signal invites play and tells others that whatever action comes next is still just play.
Turning over, inviting belly rub - showing trust and enjoying social contact.
Relaxed facial expression.
Squinty or blinking eyes.
Tail wagging fast, either side to side or in a round motion like a helicopter.
What does a wagging tail mean?
Tail wagging is a frequently misinterpreted signal. Most people believe that a wagging tail only means a dog is happy, which of course is often true, but some dogs also wag their tails when aroused, overstimulated and frustrated. You can usually tell the difference by looking at what the rest of the body is doing:
A confident or aroused dog will hold his tail in the air, allowing scent from the anal glands to circulate more freely and advertise his presence.
A dog that is wagging his tail but barking with a defensive body posture, tense face, and hard staring eyes is overly aroused and frustrated, which means that he should not be approached.
A tail that is held low or between the legs signals a lack of confidence, nervousness, or fear
A tail that is held high but wagged more slowly means that the dog is assessing a situation.
A tail that is extended and curved means that the dog is tense and ready to take offensive or defensive action.
A tail that wags around and around like a helicopter and is accompanied by relaxed fluid body movement and a wiggling bottom signals friendliness and a willingness to engage.
Research has shown that when a dog sees someone they like, his tail wags more to the right. When he sees an unfamiliar person, his tail wags more to the left. Subtle body language like this is easy to miss.
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Avoid unintentional signals.
Dogs understand your language to some extent, but it's very important to understand how you appear to your dog and how some of your gestures may be causing your dog distress, fear, or worry, even though you're completely unaware of this. Always be aware that your dog is watching you, learning, and seeking to predict your routine, habits, and preferences.
Withdrawal of your gaze and your arms at the same time informs your dog that you have decided not to touch his/her anymore and he/she may respond negatively. Yawning can indicate to your dog that you're distressed and cause his/her to move away from you. It can be a good idea to cover your yawn around your dog if he/she seems to respond negatively to the action.
Prevent your dog's discomfort.
Some actions that we see as normal or loving do not translate well from "human language" to "dog language." Avoiding activities that make dogs uncomfortable can help strengthen your relationship with your pet.
Staring at your dog can be viewed as a threat. Some trainers used to believe that a dog looking away from a stare was showing disobedience, but it is better understood now as being a sign of politeness or submission.
Punishing or reacting negatively to signs of fear in a dog will serve only to increase the dog's sense of fear and does nothing to instill better behavior from our perspective. Do not interpret signs of discomfort or fear as signs of guilt.
Many dogs do not like being patted directly on the head. However, this is something a dog usually needs to learn to tolerate. You should never pat a strange dog on the head until you are more familiar with it, but if you live in an urban environment where people are likely to want to pet your dog, early training (with treats) to help your dog tolerate head patting is essential.
Hugging and cuddling is often another action that dogs do not like. Nature has programmed the dog to believe that being held in close proximity means one of two things: one, that it is trapped as prey, or two, that it is being mounted. Since neither of these actions brings on happy responses, a dog that is not used to frequent cuddling and hugging may respond by fleeing, wriggling, and snapping. If this is the case with your dog, be patient and take a gradual approach to getting it used to a loving embrace. Ensure that children who hug dogs always keep their faces away from the dog, and monitor the dog's reaction so that you can intervene quickly if needed. Dogs are social animals and need contact, so you should avoid making them feel overly isolated. The first nights of having a puppy in the home are essential. Try to stay near the puppy such as having its crate in your room, then gradually move his/her to where he/she will sleep permanently. This will reassure the dog that all is well. Do not share your bed with a dog unless you want this to become a permanent arrangement. Doing this creates a permanent expectation in your puppy's mind.
Clarify intentional commands.
Being clear, consistent, and concise with your commands and direct communication with your dog can help your dog understand what you want him to do. Most dogs want to please their owners, so they will try to adapt their behavior to your expectations.
Always repeat commands using the same words and tone so that your dog knows his name and understands that he should be listening to you.
Alter your tone when communicating different emotions to your dog. Dogs have instincts that help them discern if we are happy with them or upset with them. If you smile and tell your dog good dog in a happy tone, he will know that he has done something right. Likewise, if you correct him in an angry tone, he will know that he has done something wrong. This is an important thing to take in consideration when training.
Remember that dogs forget things frequently. However, they will remember things that they have been trained about, where certain things and people are, who you are and who their friends are, getting praised, and surprising things (good or bad) that happen.
Shouting at your dog, gesticulating wildly, or shaking "weapons" like a broomstick at your dog will seem like crazy behavior and does nothing to change your dog's behavior. It can, however, upset an already insecure and fearful dog even more. Spare your energy and stay calm. Keep your communication tactics clear and reasoned. Keep this in mind while correcting a dog. If you come home to a destroyed sofa, yelling at the dog will not achieve anything, as the dog will not make the connection between the destroyed sofa and the correction.
Develop mutual communication.
Having a 2-way communication relationship with your dog will help both of you maintain a healthy relationship. Keeping the lines of communication open and showing your dog that you understand his/her will help you know when to step in if something is wrong.
Research how dogs communicate with each other. Modeling your own communication strategy on dog-to-dog communication can lead to more successful communication.
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