When it comes to dog body language, how well do you feel like you “get” your dog? When they stare at you from across the room, do you know what their posture is trying to tell you? As pet owners, we all swear that we have that special insight into our pup. No one gets your dog quite like you do, right? While that’s absolutely true, and your relationship with your dog is one of a kind, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t more you can learn.
At WINPRO Pet, we’re also dog lovers, and we’re constantly on the hunt for ways that we can understand our dogs even better. That’s why we created this primer on what different canine body language means, and how you can use it to understand your dog just a little bit more.
True Dog Body Language Is Nose To Tail
A lot of people get tied up in things like the way a dog looks at them, their yawns and whines, growls and barks, or how quickly (or slowly) they may be wagging their tail… but that doesn’t really take the entire picture into account.
While their eyes may be trying to tell you something, body postures have an equally important part to play. The truth is that there are always different ways of interpreting dog behavior, so being able to say you “know” your dog is also part of it. Animal behaviorists are incredibly smart and great at deciphering things, but they don’t know your dog the way you do.
We all know that dogs can’t talk. While that may sound obvious, it’s also a big part of why dog body language is essential. We can tell other people how we feel, but dogs don’t have that luxury. They have to rely much more on other forms of communication, namely ones that they can see and ones they can smell. Dogs are very visual in nature, which is why they seem to be so animated in the way they move their bodies.
Tail Wags Are Always Happy… Right?
Let’s start at one of the most focused on parts of a dog, at least when it comes to interpreting their behavior… their tail! Whether it is up or down, wagging fast or slow, or tucked under their body, a dog's tail always has a story to tell and a part to play in being able to figure out how your pup may be feeling about any given situation.
For people without a lot of experience in dog behavior, tail wagging often gets over simplified. The traditional view of dogs is that they wag their tails only when they’re happy, right? Unfortunately, that misunderstanding is what gets a lot of people hurt.
It comes down to two different factors - the position of the base of the tail and the speed of the movement. A raised tail may mean excitement or that they’re paying attention to you, but it may also mean aggression. That’s why you take speed into account. A tail that is raised and wagging quickly is more likely to be excitement, then aggression, while one that is holding it straight out and wagging it quickly may be ready to attack.
Why Are Dogs So Emotive?
It’s no secret that dogs can say an incredible amount without making a sound. In fact, studies have shown that dogs continue to get more emotive. That’s why there is so much research that goes into being able to understand what they mean when they contort their faces. Even the slight movement of an eyebrow can give us insight into what they may be feeling.
Let’s start with a dog's eyes. Just like how we can get a pretty good sense of how someone is feeling by looking them in the eyes, dogs are also great communicators with their gaze and the way they make eye contact (and how long they do it for). For example, if a dog you don’t know is staring you down and not breaking direct eye contact, you can be fairly confident that this is a warning that you are in danger. This is especially true if they have dilated pupils or they are giving you what’s known as “whale eye," where they are showing you the white part of the eye, called the sclera. Squinty eyes, on the other hand, can be a part of a dog's submissive grin, which indicates appeasement like blinking can.
Lip-licking is another clue. If a dog is licking his or her lips, and it isn’t dinner time, it is most commonly believed to be a way for them to placate or appease you. If that goes one step further, and your dog is also drooling or panting, they may be trying to tell you that they are scared or unhappy.
Some Common Dog Body Language Tips
Here are a few of the more common dog body language signals that are thrown out. While every dog is different (and unique and special), this applies more often than not.
Aggression can happen for a number of reasons, like tension (joint discomfort being a leading cause) or a general triggering of their natural fight or flight response. Generally speaking, though, aggression tends to look the same - raised hackles (those hairs on the back of their neck), a high and wagging tail, a wrinkle in their muzzle, a short and C-shaped corner of the mouth, narrowed eyes, direct staring, and slow, methodical, even stiff movements. Just remember, when dealing with an aggressive or fearful dog, don’t run unless you have no other option.
Playfulness, on the other hand, shows how different wagging tails can be. With playful dogs, they also tend to hold their tails up high. However, instead of staring you down and standing still, playful dogs will often “play bow” with their butts in the air and their chest on the ground, or bounce around excitedly. Playful dogs are really unmistakable, and not just because they’ll likely be bringing you a ball to throw or a rope toy for tug of war.
Anxious feelings and aggression get confused for each other fairly often, but there are slight differences in how this tension presents. Instead of a high and wagging tail, scared dogs are far more likely to tuck them. They will have raised hackles and stiff movements, like angry dogs, but also tend to drool, lick their lips, and do tongue flicking. They may lift a front paw when approached, as well.
And finally, happy dogs. These are the dogs we all want to see, and definitely the way we want our dog to behave around us! Dog body language that may show you that your dog is feeling particularly content is fairly easy to spot, because your dog’s body is as relaxed as their mind! In a relaxed body, look for a neutral position, with ears, eyes, muscles, and tail as relaxed as possible. They’ll also be more likely to lean into you during petting or just when you’re close by. If this sounds like your dog, congrats! You’re doing something right—and it's time to give your pup a belly rub!
Dog body language is one of the best keys that any of us have to be able to figure out what our dog is thinking and feeling. While we wish that there was a way we could ask them (or maybe not, imagine our dogs talking to us all the time!), learning to decipher the way your dog is acting and moving can give you a lot of insight into their inner workings.
At WINPRO Pet, our goal is for everyone to understand their dog just a little bit better. It can only make that special relationship between you and your dog that much closer, and don’t we all want that?