Reading and Understanding Dog Body Language

Dogs do not have words to express their thoughts and feelings. What dogs have, however, aside from barking (bark collars help train dogs to stop excessive barking), is body language. Dogs do not convey messages in words because they constantly express themselves through motion and body language.

Dogs may not have words, but they are still considered to be expressive creatures. Through body language, they express feelings of happiness, sadness, nervousness, fearfulness, anger, and many others. They use their entire body to convey much information about what they are feeling, and perhaps even what they are thinking.

Body language of dogs is a complex and elaborate way of nonverbal communication. Despite its being sophisticated, dog language can be learned to decipher, recognize, and interpret.

Once dog body language – posture, actions, signals – is correctly “read” and understood, a new world of communication with dogs bloom. The feelings, thoughts, and motivations of dogs can be somehow known, and it is more likely to predict what it is likely to do.

Before going into smart guessing and eventually pinpointing what message is a dog sending, it is extremely helpful to first look into the different components that comprise dog body language.  Breaking down these components is a crucial foundation in building skills on observation and interpretation. Dogs use their entire body – from the face all the way to the tail.

  • Ears. Dogs have different types of ears, with a wide variety of shape and size. Some are prickled, some are dropped, and some hang long. These characteristics determine how well a dog can use its ears to communicate.
  • Eyes. If you look closely, a dog can, to a degree, vary the size and shape of its size. It can also change the intensity and direction of its gaze.
  • Mouth. The way dogs position their jaws, teeth, and lips, says something about the message it wants to convey.
  • Tail. Just like the ears, dogs have different types of tails. Most have a tail that hangs down, some have curly tails, and some have naturally short bobtails. The type of tail a dog has limits its ability to use it to express how it feels.

After observing these components, it is more important to observe the entire dog, and of course, the context it is in.

Now, how do you know if a dog is feeling happy, playful, and excited? Fearful and anxious? Or aggressive? With the components and the overall observation of the dog body language, here are some signals when a dog is conveying a particular message:

Happy, playful, and excited

  • Ears. When a dog is at its happy but relaxed state, its ears are usually at its normal state. When a dog is feeling playful, excited, and alert, it will raise its ears higher on his head and direct them toward the object of interest.
  • Eyes. Its eyes are usually in its normal state.
  • Mouth. Happy, playful, and happy dogs have their mouths likely to be closed or slightly opened. Mouths may be opened because of panting, but this is how dogs normally cool down their bodies.
  • Tail. When a dog is happy and relaxed, its tail will be in its natural state. If it is feeling active, excited, and playful, it may gently wag its tail. Extreme happiness, playfulness, and excitement may lead to the dog wagging its tail more forcefully from side to side, or even in a circular manner.

Fearful and anxious

  • Ears. Ears which are stuck out to the side of the head or completely flattened suggest that the dog is feeling scared or anxious.
  • Eyes. When a dog feels threatened, frightened, or stressed in some way, its eyes may either appear larger or smaller than its usual size.
  • Tail. Fearful and anxious dogs hold their tail lower. They may also tuck it between their back legs or wag it side to side, but often at a faster rate than if it is relaxed. In cases when a dog feels extremely fearful or anxious, it may hold its tail tightly tucked up against its belly.
  • A fearful and anxious dog may hunch, seemingly trying to look small. It may lower its head or even its entire body. If the dog is scared of something, it will usually move away from it.

Aggressive

  • Ears. An aggressive dog will raise its ears up and forward.
  • Eyes. When a dog is aggressive, its eyes are likely to look larger than normal.
  • Mouth. A dog showing its teeth firmly clenched may indicate that it is aggressive.
  • Tail. It is a common belief among people that wagging a tail indicates friendliness. However, tail wagging can also mean aggressiveness.

Dog body language may be subtle ways of communicating messages. However, with careful attention and observation, people learn to decipher, recognize, and interpret the meanings of the dog body language. Listen to your dog! When the messages a dog conveys are correctly “read,” interaction with it becomes safer and more meaningful.

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