We have talked in previous posts about how important it is to understand what our dogs are saying with their bodies. Even though it sometimes seems like they really get us, they don’t speak English. Being able to interpret their body language is critical to keep them feeling safe, and it also makes your interactions safer for you and the other humans your dog encounters. Let’s take a look at some of their body parts and discuss what our dogs signal with them.
One of the biggest misunderstandings people have about dogs is “wagging tail = happy.” This is definitely true…sometimes. But there is a lot of subtlety to a wag, so keep the following in mind: know your dog’s baseline of what happy and relaxed looks like. A tail that moves all over the place in every direction, and at a rapid pace, often means happy. It could also be a little high or a little low, but again, moving wiggly and quickly usually means happy and excited. A tail sticking straight up like a flag pole with the occasional twitch is a sign that the dog may be feeling defensive. (Trying to make themselves look large and in charge.) Low, slow wags can indicate calm comfort or uncertainty, depending on what the rest of the body is saying. A tail tucked between the legs is usually a sign of fear or stress. Of course, some dogs don’t have much tail to look at! That’s why it’s great there are other body parts to help us.
There are a few features of eyes to keep…an eye…on! “Whale eye” is the term for an eye that has much of the white showing. It is usually a sign of stress. You can also look for “soft” versus “hard” eye contact. These are a bit difficult to describe, but you’ll usually know them when you see them. Dogs with “soft eyes” are relaxed facial features, making intermittent eye-contact with you – or other dogs and people. Dogs with “hard eyes” will often stare (which in doggy language can be deemed as threatening and impolite) with stiff facial muscles. Mostly it comes down to how far open the dog’s eyes are, and the intensity of the gaze. The skin above a dog’s eyes might wrinkle (not unlike a human’s forehead) when they are concerned, and lie flat when they are relaxed.
Dogs have an amazing ability to control the position of their ears. And, they can control each one independently! How exciting is that!? Of course, dog ears also come in all shapes and sizes, so interpretation can be tricky. For example, ears pinned back against the head are a clear sign of stress or fear. But this is much easier to see in a German Shepherd or other erect-eared breed, compared to a Golden Retriever or other dog whose ears lay flat. Even in the flatter-eared breeds, there is still a noticeable difference, though, if you look closely. Ears that are in a relaxed, neutral position indicate (no surprise here…) a relaxed, neutral attitude. Ears pricked forward indicate interest and attentiveness, although this could be toward something exciting or threatening. Again, this makes reading the whole dog all the more important!
Some mouth signs can be a bit subtle, but they are useful in helping you see the whole picture of what a dog is experiencing. A mouth that is closed tightly can indicate uncertainty, intense concentration, or defensiveness, while a relaxed closed mouth likely means the dog is feeling AOK. Panting can just be a sign of the dog needing to cool off, but if it is happening with the dog’s lips pulled back tightly, or when the dog isn’t likely to actually be hot, it can indicate stress, anxiety, or discomfort. Obviously, snarling (with one lip curled to reveal teeth) is a sign of intense discomfort and/or being upset!
The Whole Body
Generally speaking, dogs who are stressed become quite still or stiff. They may shift their weight forward onto their toes, as though they are poised to move. You may see the hair along their spine, known as the hackles, rise up. (Please note, raised hackles don’t always mean the dog is stressed or being aggressive.) Dogs who are comfortable will be more relaxed and move more freely, their spines are more likely to be curving side to side (sometimes as a result of a big, broad tail wag), and their weight will probably be shifted back to their paw pads, off their toes. Think loosey-goosey as opposed to a concrete statue.
The Bigger Picture
As we’ve noted here, it can be difficult to tell from just one body part what is going on for a dog, so it’s important to take in the whole picture whenever possible. A dog may be wagging and panting with its ears pricked hard forward: if so, it’s a good idea to believe those ears! If you see a moment of whale eye in a dog whose whole body is soft and loose, including a broad, easy tail wag, the eyes were probably a fluke in an otherwise happy dog. (When dogs are playing they sometimes show a whale-eye, but it’s all part of their play-face.)
Why Learn Dog-lish?
Knowing what your dog is feeling is a huge benefit to you and them! When you’re out on adventures, or just hanging out at home, it’s important to make sure your dog feels safe and secure. They trust us to intervene on their behalf when they feel threatened or uneasy, and their bodies are the only way they can convey this. Likewise, it’s great to know when your dog is feeling happy or excited! When this is the case, you know you’ve happened on something your dog really values. As the gatekeeper of access to all the things your dog really enjoys, you have a chance to use these things to vastly improve your dog’s life and your own!