Reading your Dog

At some point we all wonder what our dogs are trying to tell us. Luckily, if you work at it, the non-verbal body language they use will help you at least understand how they are feeling. This skill is very useful in a variety of situations such as when your dog meets new “friends”, visit new places and try new activities; or if you work with dogs, volunteer with a rescue group or regularly attend dog events.

Dogs use basic body postures to express their feelings to other dogs they encounter. Most dogs learn this language from puppyhood. As humans we rely heavily on verbal communication and often do not see the clues or signals our dogs are giving us.

Some of the basic signals that dogs use are:

Alert — The dog stands up erect on all four feet with weight balanced over all four legs or balanced slightly over the front feet. The ears are projected toward the sound or sight that has caught their attention. Easily aroused dogs might vocalize as well. The dog will hold their tail straight out or slightly elevated. Some dogs will open their mouth slightly. When a fearful dog has been alerted they may give warning barks and bounce on stiffened front legs to give a more threatening appearance.

Playful — When dogs are feeling playful they will often invite others to play with them. This invitation is known as the “Play Bow”. The dog will sink down on its front legs with the elbows close to the floor while keeping its hind quarters elevated. The dog will usually have its tail relaxed, elevated and wagging. Often the dog will “bounce” or “pounce” into the “Play Bow”. The dog may also offer a preferred toy to try to initiate a play session.

Happy — The happy greeting is unmistakable. The dog is wildly wagging its tail back and forth or even in circles. The dog may bark or whine. Some dogs will offer the canine “smile” where they actually draw back their lips and expose their front teeth. You can tell this is truly a “happy” signal by looking at the dog’s body. The fur along their back is smooth, they are often prancing from one front foot to the other and the tail is elevated and wagging.

Anxious — An anxious dog tries to appear smaller and less threatening. They will crouch down with their eyes or even their head turned away. The pupils will be dilated. The dog will avoid the threat or stressor by leaning away or circling. The ears are usually carried low and either to the side or back. The dog will usually have the tail low and may offer a tentative wag of the tail while holding it down between their hocks. An anxious dog may lick their lips, yawn or even give a whole body shake seeming to try to “shake off” the stress they are feeling.

Fearful — An anxious dog may progress to fearful if cornered or if their stress level continues to rise. Fearful dogs may growl, the ears may go flat back on the head or may come sharply forward as the dog heightens its level of alertness to the stressor. The fearful dog may exhibit signs of submission. A fearful dog will often avert their gaze and lean away from the source of stress. The tail is usually tucked completely under the dog close to the belly. Some fearful dogs will also appear to “chatter” repeatedly shallowly opening and closing their mouth.

Submissive — A submissive dog will usually lower its body closer to the ground and may even roll over exposing its belly and may even urinate. The dog usually holds their tail low and will wag it in short rapid movements. The dog will raise its muzzle and lick its lips or if it is being submissive towards another dog will lick the dominant dog’s muzzle.

Aggressive — An aggressive dog is one to watch closely. This dog will stand erect and appear to rise on its toes. The dog’s weight will be balanced over the front feet. The dog’s eyes are wide, the whites may show and the pupils will likely be dilated. The ears will be sharply forward or may be flattened back against the dog’s head. As the stress or threat approaches the dog may raise its hackles (raising the fur along the top of its neck and back). The aggressive dog will draw its lips up and expose its teeth and may growl. The dog will hold its tail high and may wag it in short tense bursts.

Now when you are interacting with dogs you can build and test your body-language interpreting skills; and remember that the behaviors are open for interpretation.