Monday, March 9, 2009

Dog's Body Language (Part 1)

Understand Your Dog's Body Language

(Part 1)

Although your dog cannot use "words", he is always communicating. Dogs use their bodies to express their emotions, to show affection and to identify rank.

Unlike humans, dogs don't hide their emotions so what you see is what he's really feeling.

Dogs communicate with their actions, movement of their eyes, ears, mouths, etc, body gestures, tail wagging and more. Know to tune into your dog's body language, you'll realize what he's talking about and what he needs. Of course, each dog, like each human, has his own personality traits. Over time, you'll no doubt come to learn these individual traits. But there are general moods and behaviors that you can expect from dogs.


How high or low the tail is held, in relation to dog's breed, and how it is moved can signify the dog's mood and/or rank. The higher the tail is held, the more dominant or confident the dog is; the lower, the more submissive/insecure. A tail held straight up, or even slightly curved over the back, shows that the dog is very dominant. If the fur on the tail is also bristled, the dog is saying they are willing and able to defend their position.

Small, slow wags of the dogs tail indicate that he is questioning things around him. Either hes unsure if the target dog or person is friendly, or hes unsure what is going on or what is expected of him.

Large, fast wags of the tail are sign of a happy or excited dog. If the wags are large enough to pull the dog's hips with them, the message includes a bit of submission to someone he views as pack leader.

Dogs with docked tails tend to have some problems communicating with other dogs, since their tail movements are extremely difficult to detect.

So remember that tail wagging is not always a sign of friendliness.

Take for example; your dog meets a strange dog off the leash. The other dog approaches with great interest, ears alert and tail wagging. But this dog is giving out signals that spell hostility. The wagging tail is stiff and held high. The eyes have a hard expression and stare into your dog's eyes. The dog's hackles are raised. The animal's whole posture signifies aggression. Even without growling or showing his teeth, a dog behaving like this has a chip on his shoulder. You should remove your dog from the scene quietly and quickly.

A friendly or curious dog's tail will be wagging in wide sweeps, hanging down. His ears are down and his fur is smooth along his shoulders and back. The dog will not attempt to look you or your dog in the eye. He will go through the typical sniffing pattern with your dog, first nose to nose, then the genitals. Offer this dog the back of your fist to smell, and then you can probably pet him if you wish.

The dog in conflict between dominance and fear will show a conflict of signals which can be less easy for us to interpret. Lips may retract horizontally and vertically. The dog may growl and avert his gaze at the same time, approach with ears back and tail wagging, or bark aggressively with the tail tucked. Such dogs should be handled with caution.

Expressive Faces

Some dogs have very expressive faces. Many of them smile, and this should not be confused with the snarl or fear expression. It does mean, 'I'm having a good time, hope you are too'. Eyes and eyebrows convey volumes, and so does the set of the ears.

The fearful dog draws back his ears against his head, which he lowers submissively, he crouches, making himself look smaller and less threatening, and tucks his tail between his legs. If he can he will run away, otherwise he may roll on his back, lift his leg and even urinate. Lips are retracted horizontally in that rather goofy look that means 'I'm incapable of hurting you, please don't hurt me'. The gaze is averted. (Dominant dogs tend to attack from the front, while fearful ones will often sneak up and bite from behind)


Ear position relates the dog's level of attention, and reaction, to a situation or animal. Erect ears facing forward means the dog is very attentive, while ears laid back suggests a negative, usually fearful, reaction. Dogs with drop ears, like Beagles, can't use these signals very well. Wolf-like dogs will, when content and happy, often hold their ears in a horizontal position but still forward. This has been referred to as the "Wolf Smile".


Mouth expressions can provide information about the dog's mood. When a dog wants to be left alone, he might yawn (although yawning also might indicate sleepiness, confusion, or stress) or start licking his mouth without the presence of any food. When a dog is happy or wants to play, he might pant with lips relaxed, covering the teeth and with what sometimes appears to be a happy expression (it might appear as a smile to some observers) or with the mouth open. Mouth expressions that indicate aggression include the snarl, with lips retracting to expose the teeth, although some dogs also use this during play.

It's important to look at the dog's whole body and not just the mouth or tail before deciding what the dog is trying to communicate. What appears initially as aggression might be an invitation to play, or vice-versa.

Eyes and Eyebrows

While dogs don't have actual eyebrows, they do have a distinctive ridge above their eyes, and some breeds, like the Rottweiler and the German Shepherd, have markings there. A dog's eyebrow movements usually express a similar emotion to that of a human's eyebrow movements. Raised eyebrows suggest interest, lowered brows suggest confusion or mild anger, and one eyebrow up suggests bewilderment. Slitted eyes translate the same as human's also - suspicion or anger.

Feet and Legs

Although a dog's feet cannot manipulate like human hands, a person can use them as an avenue of communication. A dog might stamp its feet, alternating its left and right front legs, while its back legs are still. This occurs when the dog is excited, wants something, or wants its owner's attention. Pointers tend to tuck one front leg up, when they sense game nearby. This behavior might not be communication so much as the dog freezing mid-step as a result of the dog's instinct telling the dog to immediately still. It is also common for dogs to paw or scratch for objects they desire. Many dogs are trained to mimic a human handshake, offering a paw to a human stooping down and offering their own hand in exchange.


A dog's ability to make facial gestures is not as refined as a human's. However, they can wrinkle or straighten their forehead to show confusion or determination, and when puzzled or curious, will often raise their eyelids and tilt their head to one side.

A dog's eyes widen when playful and unthreatened. Some dogs squint their eyes when they are praised. When afraid, a dog's pupils typically dilate. Most dogs avoid intimate eye contact, seemingly to avoid confrontation. But when angered or preparing for self-defense, a dog's eyes will narrow and follow it's foe's moves carefully. When exhibiting aggressive behavior, it is best to not look an unfamiliar dog in the eye, because it may interpret it as a challenge.

An unstressed dog in typical posture allows its tongue to loll out of its mouth. When begging, or when they are particularly happy, they may pull their lips back seemingly to smile. This pseudo-smile is normally only exhibited when interacting with people, perhaps a learned behavior from humans. A dog showing tightly clenched teeth and wrinkled nose is likely to attack if further provoked.

Dogs have excellent hearing, and can position their ears advantageously for following sounds. Dogs typically raise their ears when listening intently and when demonstrating compliance with commands. When a dog's ears are pulled back, they may be showing submission, or fear.

Part 2 of 2 to follow

And remember to praise your dog abundantly when he does the right thing!

You Can Do It!

Kum Chee
A Happy Dog Lover and Owner

1 comment:

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    Body Language