Ever wondered what your dog is thinking and feeling?
She might not talk, but your pet is communicating her emotions with tactile and subtler body signals. And understanding your pooch’s emotions will make life easier and help you form a closer relationship.
That’s why in this guide we’ll fill you in on essential facts and surprise meanings behind your pet’s behaviours.
This is a must-read for every pet guardian. Learn and identify cues why your pooch acts the way he does.
Spoiler alert, tail wagging or lip licking don’t always mean what you expect them to.
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Dog Body Language
What Is My Dog Trying To Tell Me?
Dog body language is complicated and easy to misinterpret. Often it results in unfavourable outcomes that lead you to believe that your pet isn’t acting well or unmanageable.
As much as you love your pet, a relaxing park walk or visit from a friend can quickly be spoiled if you don’t pick up on your dog’s body language in time.
From happy-to-see-you tail wags and deliberate yawns through to a series of confounding behaviours, we’ll provide you with need-to-know info to help you understand your canine better.
Read the below dog body language chart to find out more.
Positive Emotions: Happy, Excited, Playful
signs of a happy dog
- Slow tail wagging side to side
- Tail wagging in helicopter motion
- Play bow
- Turning over for belly rubs
- Squinty eyes
- Blinking eyes
- Mouth relaxed
- Tongue relaxed
- Relaxed facial expression
A happy dog is easy to identify. The tail is pointed upwards, eyes are soft, the mouth is open with the tongue visible, the body’s stance is relaxed, and the fur is smooth.
A lowered tail, mouth that’s ajar with the tongue lolling about, and a comfortable stance are a few characteristics revealed by a calm or an unperturbed puppy.
A pooch in this position shows he’s feeling unthreatened and unconcerned in the environment he’s in.
However, when a dog in this state of mind meets new people, it’s important not to let your guard down. Always ensure that introductions are slow and performed on your canine’s terms.
The play bow means “let’s play”. Your hound is showing his intended playmate that any actions that occur after bowing are non-aggressive and not meant to cause harm.
The bowing movement is characterised by a pet that’s half crouched down with his bottom and tail in the air, and his front paws stretched out.
Your dog may be curious about something by sniffing, growling, staring or stalking, and his tail and ears are up. He might also put his head to either side and maybe even lift a paw.
Negative Emotions: Worried, Anxious, Fearful
signs of stress, discomfort and fear
- Lip licking
- Raised hackles
- Hugging the owner
- Whale Eye
- Head turn
- Twitching of whiskers
- Lowered head
- Exposing belly by rolling over
- Averting eyes
- Tucking tail between the legs
- Low tail position
Uncertainty And Anxiety
Your dog might be the ultimate friendly fluff ball with you, but he may transform into a nervous Nelly or become suspicious around people he hasn’t met before.
Boisterous children who don’t fully grasp canine boundaries can also cause stress.
So how can you tell when your pet isn’t feeling comfortable?
Telltale signs that your dog is shy or anxious include a bowed head, drawn back ears, and a tucked tail positioned between his legs when he stands.
If he’s sitting, your dog might glance sideways, avoiding eye contact, and showing the whites of the eyes in a motion called the Whale’s Eye.
Upon noticing that the whites of your pet’s eyes are visible, tell others they need to back off and give the dog space.
Read the signs and act fast to prevent nips and awkwardness between friends, neighbours and acquaintances.
A distressed pet is reacting negatively to his environment or to triggers he finds threatening, for example, being fearful of strangers.
A pet in this state isn’t necessarily a danger to others, but is outwardly showcasing his internal struggles.
A dog that’s suffering from an overflow of stress lowers his torso in an attempt to take up less space, tucks his tail, pins back ears, pants excessively, and may leave behind paw print because of sweaty paw pads.
Obsessive compulsive behaviours may accompany the above, like yawning, tongue flicking, excessive scratching and other coping mechanisms adopted to refocus a pup’s attention from whatever causes his distress.
Consult with a veterinarian or behaviourist to prevent the above from occurring in the future.
Scared dogs may cower in fear, show discomfort, or act submissively. These deterrent behaviours aim to appease the intended recipients, showing they’re not a threat to the status quo.
Like a distressed pet, a fearful one will lower his body and tail and flatten his ears. Although there are commonalities between a fearful and distressed pet, there are key differences.
A frightened canine may raise a paw and lick the face of a dominant pup to protect himself and prevent fights.
When a pup is utterly terrified, he might submit entirely by laying on the floor. This action shows other dogs that he recognises his lower status in the food chain.
A dog in this position may further appease the higher-ranking dog by urinating.
A submissive dog will lie on its back, defenceless, with the throat and stomach exposed, eyes partially closed, and ears flattened.
Negative Emotions: Aggression and Unhappiness
signs of agression
- Hard stare
- Body leaning forward
- Fast nip
- Deeper bite
- Air snapping
An aggressive dog is hard to miss. Sometimes, aggressive dogs aren’t acting out because they’re frightened but are confident in their social status. When challenged or threatened by another alpha, he may start a dog fight.
Knowing whether your pet is dominant or submissive can help you out of sticky situations that may cause bloodshed if you don’t recognise the signs.
An aggressive dog may exhibit a piloerection, which is when the hackles on your dog’s back raise, a twitching, upright tail, and a forward tilting body.
Your dog’s facial expression is also very revealing, with hardened eyes, baring fangs and a C-shaped mouth.
Stopping a dog fight might require intervention. However, never try to get between two hounds fighting or grab their collars to separate them. Instinct may cause your pooch to bite you even if he’s never shown aggression toward you before.
Instead, spray the dogs with water, or throw a cloth over them or blare loud noise to redirect their focus elsewhere.
Anger and Unhappiness
Like aggressive dogs, an angered dog’s torso is stiffened and angled forward when he’s standing up, with unblinking eyes and enlarged pupils fixated on the threats. Teeth bearing will also occur.
An angry or unhappy dog sitting may cower, show his teeth, and tuck his tails between his legs.
Subtle Signals: Mouth, Ears, Eyes
Not sure if you’re misinterpreting how your pet feels?
A dog at boiling point will display what’s called an offensive pucker, which is when the lips are curled, the teeth are on display, and the mouth is pulled into a C-shape.
We should perceive these as warning signals that may lead to a physical attack.
An anxious, fearful or tense dog exhibits a long lip, which is when a dog’s mouth is pulled back at the corners and clamped shut.
Rapid panting without strenuous exercise is another sign that your dog is struggling in an environment, accompanied by a sudden closing of his mouth, which is a stress response to the stimuli.
Depending on the breed of your pet, their ears might take on different shapes.
Basset Hound, for example, have long floppy ears that droop forwards, so assessing your dog’s mood based on their ears might be challenging.
That said, dogs can move their ears backwards and forwards depending on their emotions.
The ears of a relaxed pet are positioned back or to the sides.
The more alert a canine is, the more forward his ears will be.
These are the less obvious symptoms that can help you better read your puppy’s mind if all else fails.
Humans say the eyes as the windows to their soul. Although not nearly as poetic, canine eyes tell us plenty about a dog’s emotional state.
Whale eye: Discomfort
You can gauge a dog’s state of mind by focusing on its gaze. Tense dogs may have round, unblinking eyes with the sclera showing called Whale Eyes.
Back off if he’s showing the whites of his eyes; he wants to be left alone.
Your dog shows the white of the eye by turning head away but still looking at the source of stress. It signals anxiety or discomfort.
Hard eyes: Unhappy or aggressive
A dog with hard eyes and a fixed stare isn’t a happy dog either. He might be guarding something or feel aggressive.
For example, your dog might look this way if his toy is taken away, is being bothered while eating, or has identified a threat.
Unfocused eyes: Fearful
A fearful dog may have glassy, unfocused eyes. Your dog probably won’t pay attention to your commands because of being in this distracted state of mind.
Soft eyes: Happy or relaxed
Happy or relaxed canine eyes are soft, narrowed, and almond-shaped, and the lids are heavy. Your pet will look as though he’s squinting or struggling to see, but he’s a contented, stress-free puppy.
Top tip to new owners: While trying to bond with your new pet, don’t maintain eye contact for too long; he’ll perceive this as threatening. You can extend eye contact once your dog is comfortable with you and shows signs of warming.
Does My Dog Want To Play Or Fight?
In a utopian world, we’d all love our dogs to get along, playing for hours on end, leash-free and happy.
Unfortunately, it may not always work out that way. A visit to the dog park or a casual neighbourhood stroll can turn ugly fast.
To prevent an emergency vet visit, learn to spot the warning signs where harmless roughhousing and romping in the grass could turn into a full-on fight.
Warning signs before a fight
Dogs starting play will circle each other, their bodies are curvy and wriggly. Dogs might also bark an exaggerated, puppy-like howl and bite their playmate’s ears and nose playfully.
Jovial play can end in an altercation because dogs get overexcited, possessive over a toy, jealous or protective.
If your dog’s torso appears rigid and stiff when approached by potential playmates, remain alert and ready to step if the interaction goes south.
Warning signals to watch out for may include vertical wrestling with both dogs standing on their hind legs.
If your pet engages in humping, hip bumping or body slamming, or places his head over, calmly approach your dog and attach his leash. Playtime is over.
Canine interaction can have several meanings, so it’s easy to misjudge your pet’s mood. The following misconceptions might surprise you!
My dog must be happy – his tail is wagging
A wagging tail isn’t limited to a happy dog. It may show that he’s alert or frustrated.
Which direction is the tail moving?
- Slow, side-to-side tail wagging: Relaxed dog
- Faster tail wag: Emotionally aroused dog (excitement, frustration etc.)
- Helicopter tail wag: Happy dog
- Higher tail position: Assertive dog
- Tail pointing tucked between legs: Fearful dog
- Tail up like a flag: Confident dog (could even be aggressive)
One way to tell the difference between a happy hound or a hyper-stimulated dog is the direction of the wag. To the right, and you’ve got nothing to worry about, your pet may just be overjoyed to see his beloved fur parent.
A tail swinging to the left or standing upright and vibrating could point to signs of trouble. Your pup might be alerted to a perceived threat and is deliberating his actions.
A helicopter tail wag points to playful behaviour and reveals that your pet doesn’t mean harm, nor is he gearing up to protect himself by lashing out.
A dominant-aggressive dog is standing his ground and may show aggression when challenged.
My dog is showing other dogs his belly – he wants to be friends
At home, a dog lying is a trusting pet usually demanding of one thing; belly rubs.
However, this behaviour means something different in a dog park. Your furry pal is acting submissive toward other animals, showing them that he isn’t a threat and doesn’t want to fight and come out second best.
My dog is bearing his teeth – he must want to fight
Humans smile to look friendly and approachable, but a canine might bear his sharp fangs when he’s flashing you or others a grin.
The toothy smile might seem like a hostile leer, but what your pet is trying to tell you is that “he’s happy and comes in peace”.
With that being said, it’s still important to differentiate between a harmless grin and a dog on the offensive or defensive. A dog about to attack will curl his lips in a C-shape, show his teeth, lunge and growl.
My dog must love his food – he’s forever licking his lips
Sure, your dog may show his satisfaction. But lip licking that occurs between mealtimes has little to do with his desire for delicious grub but is a sign of anxiety over an actual or perceived threat.
My dog’s hackles are raised – should it worry me?
Raised hackles or piloerection occurs when the hairs on your dog’s back stand up.
Although an aggressive canine on the verge of an attack might display a piloerection, it isn’t the only time where the fur on your pet’s back raises up.
Raised hackles are involuntary muscles movements, like goose bumps, activated when your pet is stimulated, excited, or startled.
Understand Your Dog By Thinking Dog
Although our dogs can’t express themselves with words, it’s possible to understand what they’re trying to communicate to us by paying attention to visual and tactile signals.
According to a 2018 study, dogs possess impressive skills in cross-species communication even though they last shared a common ancestor with primates 100 million years ago.
Too often, accidents happen not because a dog snaps out of the blue, but because the warning signs were there but not recognised.
Hopefully, this guide sheds insight on how to read your dog better and respond appropriately to different scenarios.
Dogs can’t talk. Instead they use canine body language to communicate which is complex and includes a series of non-verbal signals with various meanings.
Much like we’re able to pick up on a dog’s body language, dogs can interpret when we’re happy, sad, or angry.
Dogs show their affection in different ways, one is through sustained eye contact. Like us, they only reserve this behaviour for those they trust and are close to.
A dog leaning against you is also showing you he loves and trusts you implicitly.
Finally, a dog that jumps up, licks you or brings you his favourite toy when you arrive home from work or the shops wants you to know that he’s happy to see you and that he’s missed you.
You can tell your pet is stressed if he changes his posture, starts yawning, panting, drooling, engages in lip licking, and countless other signs.
If a dog licks you, he’s greeting you and showing you affection.
Children and canines don’t always mix well together. Young children especially don’t understand a dog’s boundaries. Pulling tails and stealing dog toys may result in bites and tears.
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