Many people are familiar with the idea that dogs communicate with us and with other animals using body language. However, understanding how to interpret this language can be difficult.
Learning how to read and interpret the body language of dogs is an important skill for all dog guardians and professionals, as it can help us to better understand the behaviour of the dog along with how they feel.
What is Dog Body Language?
Dog body language is any movement or posture a dog uses to communicate its intentions and emotions. Dogs use a variety of vocalisations, barks, growls, and whines when communicating with each other and with humans, but body language can often be more informative.
Benefits of Understanding Dog Body Language
It is important to understand the body language of a dog in order to better communicate with it. This can help to develop a strong bond between us and dogs, as well as helping to prevent misunderstandings and tension. Additionally, being able to interpret a dog’s body language can help you to better understand the dog's feelings and needs. This can give you a better understanding of how we keep a dog safe and happy, as well as how to train and interact with them.
Context within Canine Communication
Context is the situation the dog has in along with what the rest of their body is doing. Context can affect the meaning of the body language a dog is expressing. For dogs, context is important because the same body language can be interpreted differently depending on what else is happening. For example, a dog who is wagging their tail may be excited or friendly when in a familiar setting that it perceives to be safe, but can be timid or fearful when in an unfamiliar or confrontational context. Similarly context includes when the rest of the dog's body is doing, so we must always look at the entire dog.
Types of Dog Body Language
There are a few key types of body language a dog will use to communicate.
Tail Wagging: Tail wagging usually indicates that a dog is happy or excited but also can tell us the dog is anticipatory for example looking for trouble. It's vital to look at the whole dog - how tense are they? If the tail is tucked or held low, it can indicate the dog is fearful or anxious.
A relaxed wagging dog.
Posture: The way a dog holds their body can give a lot away about their emotions. A relaxed and playful posture may indicate happiness, while a tense and alert posture may indicate fear or aggression.
Yawning: Yawning can be an indicator of stress or tiredness. Dogs will often yawn when they are feeling overwhelmed or anxious in a situation, as a way to show they are uncomfortable. Yawning can also be a sign of co-operation and calming, as dogs will often do this when they are greeting or playing with other dogs.
Facial Expressions: Dogs can use facial expressions to communicate with humans and other animals. Raised brows, wide eyes, and an open mouth may indicate happiness and excitement while a lowered head and averted eyes can signal fear.
Eyes: Soft eyes communication is a form of communication used by dogs when they are relaxed and feeling safe. It is a quiet and gentle form of communication that involves a soft, relaxed gaze. It can also be accompanied by a lowered head, relaxed body posture, and a wagging tail. This type of communication is often used by dogs to demonstrate trust, comfort, and connection.
The hard stare is a form of communication used by dogs when tense. It is a common form of communication between dogs, especially between two dogs who are not familiar with one another or when a new or unknown dog is introduced. A hard stare generally consists of a long, direct gaze and a furrowed brow. It can also be accompanied by an arched neck, raised hackles, bared teeth, and a low, quiet growl. This type of communication is often used by dogs as a prelude to aggression.
Facial tension and hard eyes.
Understanding Dog Stress Signals
Being able to recognise stress signals in a dog is important in order to ensure the animal is not feeling threatened or frightened. Stress signals may include:
Visual Signs: Signs such as dilated pupils, trembling, lip licking, and tail tucking can indicate the dog is feeling stressed or scared.
Behavioral Signs: Changes in behavior such as vocalisations, avoiding people or situations, and laying down submissively may be a sign that the animal is feeling scared or uncomfortable.
Signs of Submission: Rolling onto the back, dropping the head and avoiding eye contact can be telltale signs of submission. These actions are usually seen when a dog is feeling overwhelmed or intimidated.
Interaction Between Dogs
The language dogs use between each other is often very different from the language they use with humans. Dogs may tackle or chase, which is a way to practice natural behaviour patterns and have fun. They may also use slower, softer movements when interacting with other dogs, which indicates that neither dog is trying using the full force of their body in play.
Self-handicapping to maintain the game.
Dog body language can be a difficult thing to interpret but it needn't be. Understanding the different signs and signals dogs use can help build a better bond between a human and their canine companion. It can also help to keep both the guardian and dog safe.
Finally, observing the body language that dogs use in interaction with other dogs can give further insight into their complex and fascinating communication system.
If you want to learn more about dog body language, take a look at our exceptional, just updated, Canine Body Language course, expertly tutored by the lovely Holly Leake.
Holly Leake is a tutor, dog writer and canine behaviourist who also runs her own business in Staffordshire UK. If you would like to learn more about your dog with Holly, take a look at our Advanced Canine Body Language Course.