Dogs speak to us constantly, maybe not by using sound but by using their body language. In fact, this does not only go for dogs, but for all animals. Humans tend to communicate by moving their lips up and down and making different sounds. We, of course also use body language but to a lesser degree than dogs. This has made us somewhat blind to what our dogs are trying to tell us.
Many behavioral problems, such as the dog acting aggressively, is due to the fact that the dog has given up in trying to communicate with their humans because their humans time and time again have crossed their boundaries despite the dog being clear in his/her communication and body language.
Every day, I see videos or pictures of dogs having their boundaries crossed because their humans do not understand what they are saying. It is not just the owners, but also the people commenting on example how cute the dog is for having a child sitting on him, when really the dog is scared to death.
But how can we learn to understand what our dogs are trying to tell us?
Dog body language EXPLAINED!
We start by listening.
It has been scientifically shown that the more humans try to communicate with their dog, i.e. try to read their body language, the more the dog will try to communicate. This will automatically enhance the relation and understanding between human and dog. Dogs are masters at reading humans and sometimes know how we feel before we realize it ourselves. Humans on the other hand struggle to understand what their dog is telling them.
To read a dog’s body language takes practice. Each dog communicates differently depending on their personality but there are common traits which will give you a good start into understanding your dog on a whole new level. Below I have tried to capture some common signs to look for in your dogs that almost always means the same.
The basics in dog body language
Dogs use their eyes a lot in their communication. In fact during their domestication dogs have developed extra muscles above their eyes, making them able to form those cute puppy eyes we all know. This is a specific adaptation to their lives with humans over time and one that has certainly paid off.
Moving from cute puppy eyes to the other end of the spectrum we find, what is called whale eyes. Whale eye is a term describing that the dog is showing the white in their eyes and is often a sign that a dog is very uncomfortable in a situation. Whale eye is often accompanied by turning of the head, lip licking or clenched jaws.
I have written a whole blog about the different meanings of a dog’s tail wag. Many dog owners know that when their dog’s tail is down between their hind legs, the dog is either scared or insecure about the situation.
The tail wag is a little harder to decipher. Science have now found that dogs will wag their tail differently when they see their owner compared to a stranger.
Furthermore, it is not always that a high swishing tail means that the dog is happy, it can also be that the dog is nervous, excited or stressed which is seen in more rapid, closer tail swishing. A tail can also quiver which should tell you that the dog is experiencing some form of arousal, be it good or bad.
A dog’s ears are used widely in their communication with both us and con-specifics. They can be hard to read as they come in so many different shapes. If you want to understand more about the physiology behind a dog’s ear, then go to this blog.
If a dog flattens their ears it is often a sign of insecurity and you should move away as the dog uses this as a warning sign. However, flat ears can also be a submission sign and the dog is telling you that he/she is friendly. Upright, forward pointed ears often mean that the dog is alert or attentive.
What you want to see is an open relaxed mouth.
If the dog is hyperventilating it could be a sign that the dog is stressed. If the dog’s mouth is clenched tight it is normally because the dog is uncomfortable in the situation. Licking around the lips is another sign that a dog is uncomfortable and could be a sign that a dog is about to bite. Showing of teeth is a sure sign of a dog telling you to back off or else they will bite. The dog is very stressed and nervous in this situation and is giving you a last warning before they will go for the bite.
Dogs communicate with their entire body and often use more than one sign to tell you what they want or need. This can also be seen from the many different meanings specific parts of the body can have in the above. It is therefore important to always look at the entire body to understand what your dog is telling you.
A classic example here could be belly rubs. Is your dog really asking for belly rubs or is he/she using their body to tell you to back off by showing you the most submissive body language they know? If we look at the entire body we can read what they want.
A dog who is asking for belly rubs will often have almond shaped eyes (all muscles around is relaxed, the white in the eye cannot be seen), he/she might pant a little but not to an extensive degree and the muscles around their mouth will be soft and relaxed. If a dog shows you the white in their eyes, does not meet your gaze, is panting rapidly or have clenched jaws perhaps showing their teeth a little, then they are asking for space.
A dog should never be punished to show you their body language. Often dogs have given up on showing people what they need and go straight for the bite. They have tried over and over again to show humans using more subtle signs but the humans have not listened and kept crossing their boundaries and now the only way that has actually worked and made the human stop is to bite.
This is the main reason we must educate ourselves in how dog’s communicate, so our dog is not forced to go to their last resort, which is biting, but instead can tell you by walking away, that they need space.
To know your dog’s body language also benefits you in a different way, as it will help you in finding out if something is wrong with your dog. Maybe your dog suffers from pain somewhere and he/she is displaying it through their body language.
There are many great sources for learning more about dogs body language, and the dog community is slowly starting to look at their furry companions in a different way. If you want to know more about dog body language then sign up for our email list and get notified when we launch our next mini course in dog body language.