Ever wish you could know what your dog was trying to tell you when he runs in circles, holds up his paw, or stares straight ahead without moving (like he thinks it makes him invisible)? If you’re a dog owner, then you’ve no doubt seen all of these gestures and positions, but you might not know what they mean. While a dog tells you a lot with its vocal sounds, like barks, growls, yips, and howls, a lot of your pet’s communication happens through body language and facial expressions.
Plus, some of the things a dog does, for example, yawning, have a whole different meaning from when humans do it. Therefore, it’s essential to realize you can’t assume your pup feels the same way you do when you perform the same action. You and your dog speak two different languages, but with some patience and effort, you can come to understand each other. This goes a long way in strengthening your bond and how you interact together.
The “Talkative” Tail
A wagging tail isn’t always a sign of happiness. Your pup says a lot with every little wiggle and pose, whether it’s that he’s nervous, scared, or ready-to-rumble. A lot depends on how fast your pup is wagging his tail, which direction, and if his tail is stiff or relaxed.
Think about the speed of your dog's tail as kind of an intensity indicator. The faster your dog wags his tail, the more intense his emotion. When it comes to tail direction, a right-wagging tail typically signals that the dog has positive feelings about whatever he sees. For example, when you come home from work, and your pup greets you with a sweeping, relaxed tail wag to the right, he’s happy to see you. However, a tail wagging to the left (especially faster, short wags) more likely signals that your pup has some negative, or at least, cautious feelings.
You probably already guessed that a tail tucked between the legs is a sign of fear. Your pup could be scared or stressed out if he’s holding his tail this way. If your pup’s tail is upright, he’s likely feeling sure of himself, or in some cases, this tail position can also be a sign of aggression.
Keep It in Neutral
As you get to know your dog, learn his typical tail position. In other words, where does his tail usually rest when he’s feeling calm and relaxed? Different breeds hold their tails in different ways, and curly-tailed dogs, like Akitas and Pugs, can be a challenging read when it comes to their tails alone. So it’s important to know what’s the standard for your pup, so you can tell when he’s holding his tail higher or lower than usual.
Your Dog’s Facial Expressions and Habits
When you’re happy, you smile, and when you’re nervous, you might furrow your brow. People express themselves in all sorts of ways through their various facial expressions. Dogs also have their unique way of communicating through their facial expressions and habits. For example, when a pup yawns, she’s trying to calm herself (or even you or another dog).
If your dog is licking excessively, she likely is anxious or stressed (unless she’s found something super tasty); licking is a form of self-soothing for dogs. This is why things like lick-mats help pups that get worked up about stressful situations like fireworks, bath time, or vet visits.
When your dog pants, it’s often a way for him to cool himself off. If the panting is overly heavy and excessive, it could be a potential sign of heat exhaustion, so make sure to monitor your pup closely. However, if your dog’s panting is a bit more relaxed and accompanied by an equally casual attitude, then she might be telling you she’s ready to play.
Finally, a little bit about the doggy smile: dogs can smile, but a typical doggy smile is an open mouth that exposes a bit of the front teeth, and it usually coincides with a happy attitude. If your pup pulls her lips back tightly to where you can see most of her teeth, especially if the rest of her seems a bit tense; this is not a smile; this is more likely a warning.
The “Eyes” Have It
A big part of anyone’s facial expressions is the eyes. Eyes can give away a lot about what a person is feeling, and the same holds true for your canine companion. Pay attention to whether your dog’s eyes appear relaxed, almost like she’s squinting. This is an indication that your pup is content and feeling good. However, if your dog’s stare is more of a glare or super intense, this signals the opposite emotion. Your pup is probably anxious about something or on high alert and possibly ready to attack if provoked.
Instead of an intense stare, if your dog looks away or avoids making eye contact, then he likely feels nervous or uncomfortable. Looking away could be a way for him to diffuse a tense situation or try to calm himself down. Your dog also probably feels stressed out if you see the whites of his eyes, often referred to as “whale eye.”
Reading Your Dog’s Posture
Perhaps one of the most famous, easy-to-read doggy poses is the play-bow. This is when your pup lowers his head and the front part of his body closer to the floor while his hindquarters stay raised. Basically, your dog is saying, “Come on, let’s play!” Or, when you grab your pup’s leash, and he starts happily bouncing around in circles, he’s letting you know he’s super-excited about what’s about to happen.
If your pup raises a paw or tilts his head to the side, this often signals uncertainty or confusion. However, some hunting breeds might lift a paw if they sense prey. In some cases, your pup might lift his paw if he’s waiting for you to toss a ball or other toy.
If your dog stands tall, shifts his weight forward, and has an overall stillness, he is likely on alert or about to engage in aggressive behavior. Pay attention to all of your pup’s body language and cues. However, if he's doing the opposite and crouching close to the ground, he might be scared. This is a sign of submission in dogs, rolling onto the back and exposing the belly. However, if all of the rest of your dog’s cues are relaxed and he rolls onto his back, he might just want a belly rub.
Pay Attention to Your Dog’s Hair
If you suddenly see all the hair on your pup’s back stand on end (raising his hackles), it could mean he’s scared, on alert, or just excited. When this happens, it’s essential to observe the other signs that your dog is exhibiting.
Dog Body Language: Putting It All Together
Companies like FluentPet have come up with a unique way to help your dog communicate with you: speech buttons. Basically, you train your pup to use various buttons that represent different needs, words, etc. If you’re feeling particularly motivated, you could give it a shot. However, it’s still a good idea to know what your pup’s body language means. After all, if he’s feeling particularly stubborn one day, he probably won't be up for pushing buttons (except maybe for yours).
Therefore, once you know the basics, reading your dog’s body language is kind of like putting together a puzzle. Each piece plays its part, and when you put them all together, you can decipher what exactly your dog is feeling.
Understanding and good communication is a critical part of any relationship, and knowing what your faithful friend is trying to tell you makes a significant difference. For more helpful tips like these, make sure to check out the rest of our blog. You’ll find everything from the low-down on useful products to important resources and fun ideas of how to spend quality time with your precious pets.