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.
Tail wagging seems like an obvious body language signal. If a dog’s tail is wagging, the dog is happy, right? Wrong. People misinterpret this signal all the time.
All a wagging tail means is that the dog is emotionally aroused. It could be excitement, but it could be frustration or worse. To interpret the dog’s emotions and intentions, look at the speed and direction of the wag as well as the position of the tail.
A relaxed dog holds his tail in a neutral position, extending out from the spine, or maybe below spine level. As the dog becomes more excited or aroused, his tail usually rises above spine level.
A fearful dog will tuck his tail between his rear legs. The tail may also be held rigid against the belly, or wag stiffly.
The tail movement may be a loose wag from side to side or sweeping circular motion. As the dog becomes more excited or aroused, his tail usually rises above spine level. He may also move his tail side to side in short, rapid movements as he becomes more excited.
A dog’s weight distribution can tell a lot about mood and intention. Consider a cowering dog that is hunched toward the ground. That’s a sign of fear or stress. The dog may be trying to get away from something and the posture makes the dog appear smaller. In other words, it says, “I mean no harm.” The extreme of this posture is a dog that rolls onto their back exposing the belly. This may look like a dog soliciting a belly rub, and in a relaxed dog, it often is.
But it can actually be a sign of considerable stress and anxiety. The dog may even urinate a little in appeasement.
Dogs have similar facial features as people, but they don’t use them in the same way. Consider yawning. People yawn when they’re tired or bored, but dogs yawn when they’re stressed. According to Turid Rugaas, author of On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals, dogs use yawning to calm themselves in tense situations and to calm others, including their owners. She suggests yawning at your dog to provide comfort at stressful moments like a vet visit. But don’t be surprised if your dog yawns back. Just as yawning is contagious in people, dogs can “catch” yawns too.
When looking at dog's eyes, pay attention to the white part of the eye (the sclera), and consider the focus and intensity of the dog's gaze. When a dog is feeling tense, his eyes may appear rounder than normal, or they may show a lot of white around the outside (sometimes known as a "whale eye".)
Dilated pupils can also be a sign of fear or arousal—these can make the eyes look "glassy," indicating that a dog is feeling threatened, stressed or frightened.
A relaxed dog will often squint, so that his eyes become almond-shaped with no white showing at all.
Dogs have a wide variety of ear types. Although it may be easier for us to see ear position in dogs with erect ears, even floppy-eared dogs like Basset hounds can move the base of their ears forward and back to show different emotions—just look at the direction of the base of the ear. When a dog is relaxed, his ears may be slightly back or out to the sides. As a dog becomes more aroused, the ears will move forward, pointing toward a subject of interest. When their ears are most forward their foreheads often wrinkle.
Much like your own “goosebumps,” the hair can raise along a dog’s back when he is upset or aroused. This is also known as piloerection or “raised hackles” and can occur across the shoulders, down the spine, and above the tail. Hackles don’t always mean aggression is imminent, but they are an indicator that the dog is excited or upset about something.
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.
Dog body language involves a series of unique methods for communicating emotions and intentions. It can be quite different from how humans communicate.
A lot of canine communication consists of barks, whines, and growls, so it’s important to know what dog sounds mean.
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More often, though, dogs rely on nonverbal body language. That can lead to plenty of human-dog misunderstandings. Sometimes, dog body language is simply unfamiliar (after all, people don’t have tails). At other times, it’s in direct contrast with what that same signal means to a human, such as with yawning or looking away.
Owners who spend time understanding their dog’s body language put themselves in a much better position when socializing their dog and subsequently avoids potential disasters.
Understanding dog body language isn’t hard.
If you notice the early signs that your dog is unhappy you can remove them from the situation before it gets too much for them. Noticing their little nuances and understanding their behavior enables us to raise a stable and well-rounded dog.
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