Dog Body Language- a Ruff Translation

We’ve all been there, wondering what your dog is thinking- are they happy? Are they sad? If only they could speak… It turns out, they can- well, sort of. Dog body language is the most efficient way to tell how your pup is feeling. So how do we translate this into something we can understand?

Body Language Basics: the Tail

dog body language neutral

Starting with the basics, the most commonly known body language that dogs display uses their tail. Unknown to many people, there’s more that goes into reading their mood than whether or not their tail is wagging. The two main factors you need to take into account are movement and position. When scared, dogs tend to hold their tails between their legs, against their stomachs, or may hang their tail close to their legs while wagging stiffly. In a relaxed or neutral mood, the dog’s tail will usually hang in a neutral position, extending from the spine or resting just below the spine level. If happy or excited, a dog will usually hold the tail at or above spine level, with a loose, side-to-side or circular wagging motion. If they are highly excited, they may make shorter, faster wagging motions.

Ears can Speak Volumes

Ears can be one of the more difficult identifiers of dog body language, depending on the breed. Although breeds with upright ears, like corgis, may be easy to read, floppy eared breeds such as basset hounds may have ear movements that are harder to identify. The easiest way to check the ear position of dogs with floppy ears is to look at the base and which way it’s pointing. A relaxed dog will have its ears out to the side or slightly back. When excited or focused, the ears will usually be pointed forward.

Eyes: the Windows to the Soul

Looking at your pet’s eyes can be a great indicator of how they’re feeling. Are your pet’s eyes rounder than usual with dilated pupils and lots of the whites showing? They may be feeling anxious or frightened. Conversely, relaxed dogs may squint slightly without showing the whites of the eyes.

A Smiling Mouth

When relaxed, dogs tend to have their mouths open and may be panting, with the corners of the mouth slightly upturned. Some dogs may express a “submissive smile”, showing their teeth in a non-aggressive manner. A dog displaying this emotion will often lower their heads, flatten their ears, squint their eyes, and wag their tail. They also usually have a gentle posture or stance, and show their front teeth. Scared dogs tend to display a closed mouth with the corners of their lips puled back taut. Rapid panting or drooling may be seen as well, in extreme cases of stress. Further displays of stress may include yawning, lip licking, and whining. Warning signs can also be observed in the facial area, including pulling their lips back to show the teeth, growling, sharp gaze, with a wrinkled forehead and snout.

Full Body Posture

Dog Body Language Angry

While all of the previously mentioned identifiers of dog body language are helpful, posture is the biggest tell when it comes to a dog’s mood. A happy or excited dog may playfully bow or make loose, exaggerated movements and facial expressions while wagging its tail. Dogs that are showing aggressive body language may stand tall with tense posture, lean slightly forward, have a sharp gaze, wrinkled muzzle and bared teeth. If a dog is uninterested in interacting with an overly playful dog, they may express this by moving stiffly and slowly or moving away from the other dog. 

Similar avoidance actions, such as scratching, sniffing, and lying down can be a sign that playtime is done. Nervous or scared dogs tend to lean away, crouch, duck their head, tuck their tail to their stomach, and tremble. They may additionally display behaviors such as wide eyes with dilated pupils, freezing in place, scrambling away, rolling onto their back or side, and frantic, quick panting. Extremely stressed or upset dogs may also sweat through the small number of sweat glands located on their paws. Another indicator of both excitement and feeling tense is raised heckles. Heckles are the hair on the back of the neck and upper shoulders, which the dog can raise through an emotional reaction similar to goosebumps on humans.

Remember, whenever observing your dog’s behavior look at every aspect, not just teeth, eyes, or ears alone. Though showing teeth and standing tall may show aggression, the same face with flattened ears and a wagging tail shows submission. Considering all you’ve learned about dog body language, you should be able to start identify your pup’s moods more accurately. They may not be able to speak to us, but now you’ll have a better idea of what they’re feeling!

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