Reading A Dog’s Body Language
A lot of research has been done on human body language. Some may remember the short lived TV series “Lie to Me”, in which the main character used body language assessment to tell whether the perpetrator was lying or telling the truth.
So what about dogs? Can we glean anything from their body language? Is a wagging tail really the sign of a happy dog? Here are some of the signs to observe so you can interpret what your dog is saying.
Confident: a confident dog will stand straight and tall with his head held high. The ears will be up and the eyes will be bright. His tail may wag, but gently, although it may curl or even hang relaxed. He will be friendly and non-threatening.
Happy: a happy dog is similar to the confident dog. His tail may sway and in some dogs can even go around like a windmill. His mouth will be slightly open and he may even pant a little. A happy dog will be more friendly than the confident dog and he may even “wag”his entire body.
Submissive: A submissive dog holds his head down, ears down flat and avoids eye contact. The tail is low and may sway slightly but is not tucked. He may roll on his back and expose his belly. He may nuzzle or lick the other dog or person to further display passive intent. Sometimes, he will sniff the ground or divert his attention to show he does not want any trouble. He is gentle and non-threatening.
Anxious/uncomfortable: He is somewhat submissive, but often holds his ears partially back and his neck stretched out. He stands in a tense posture and sometimes shudders. He whimpers, moans, yawns, licks his lips or looks at or licks his genitals. His tail is low and may be tucked and show the whites of his eyes, called whale eye. An anxious dog may overreact to stimulus and become fearful or even aggressive. If you know the dog, you may divert his attention to something more pleasant. Be cautious, do not provoke or comfort him.
Fearful: The fearful dog combines submissive and anxiety with more extreme signals. He stands tense and low to the ground. His ears are flat back and eyes are narrow. His tail is between his legs, and he typically trembles. He whines or growls and might even bare his teeth. He may urinate or defecate. A fearful dog can turn aggressive quickly. Remove yourself calmly and slowly. If this is your dog, try to move him to a less threatening and familiar location.
Dominant: A dominant dog will try to assert himself over other dogs and sometimes people. He stands tall and confident and may lean a bit forward. His eyes are wide and makes direct eye contact. His ears are up and alert, and the hair on his back may stand up. He may growl lowly. His demeanor appears less friendly and possibly threatening. If the behavior is directed at a dog that submits, there is little concern. If the other dog also tries to be dominant, a fight may pursue. A dog that directs dominant behavior toward people can pose a serious threat. Do not make eye contact and slowly try to leave. If your dog exhibits this behavior toward people, behavior modification is necessary.
Aggressive: All feet are firmly planted on the ground in a territorial manner, and he may lunge forward. His ears are pinned back, head is straight up, and eyes are piercing. His tail is straight, high and may even be wagging. He bares his teeth, snaps jaw and growls or barks threateningly. The hairs along his back stand on edge. If you are near a dog showing these signs it is important to get away carefully and slowly. If your own dog becomes aggressive, seek help from a professional dog trainer to correct the behavior. Dogs with aggressive behavior should never be used for breeding.
Once you learn some of these, spend some time observing your dog interacting with people and other animals. Interpreting dog body language can help protect you, your dog and family from dangerous situations as well as aid in training of behavior problems.
Thanks to: Leslie Gallagher of St. Charles who owns K9Z Etc., a pet care and dog training business. She writes a monthly column sharing training tips and other information about dogs.