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Doggy body language - what is your dog trying to tell you?

03/06/2019 - Latest News

Why does your dog do that? Understanding doggy body language is the first step to building better behaviours.
My previous career was all about communicating. Both human to human communications and human to dog communications. Effective communicating allowed my colleagues and myself to calm difficult situations, avoid tensions between neighbours and help relieve suffering. So its no surprise that I am fine-tuned to find ways to help dog owners and their pooches to communicate better.
Dogs have their own language, and it’s very different to ours. Whilst we use words, tone of voice, facial expressions and hand gestures to get our message across, dogs use lots of subtle little clues that make sense to other dogs but are almost imperceptible to us – unless of course, you know what you’re looking for.
One thing to bear in mind as you read this, every dog will put their own character into their communications. This article is quite generalised. As you get to know your own pet, you’ll begin to recognise their own signs and signals.
Why do we need to understand doggy body language?
Most problem behaviours in dogs come down to poor communication with humans. They can’t use words to tell us how they are feeling or what they need, so they exaggerate the tools that they do have.

I’ve spotted people on holiday and in restaurants doing the exact same thing.  For example if somebody wants to ask for a special dish but the waiter doesn’t speak their language. What happens? That person speaks slower and louder and uses exaggerated hand movements. Next time they go into that restaurant, they immediately start talking to the waiter as though they are deaf or daft.
Now let’s examine the doggy equivalent. If a stranger approaches your dog approaches them in a way they don’t like they will alter their body language. Their ears may drop (assuming they have the type of ears that can drop), tail may go down and body posture changes. The stranger says something like “don’t be scared I won’t hurt you” and leans over your dog to touch its head. Dog is understandably affronted and if he is unable to run away might growl – which is the equivalent of a human speaking louder. If the growl is ignored it escalates to a bark and then, out of desperation, a bite. Stranger backs off and dog learns that the way to avoid unwanted touch is to get nasty.
Now, if you, as a dog owner were to pick up on those early signs of distress, you could have intervened to change the outcome of the situation.
Being aware of and reacting to your dog’s body language is an important part of keeping your dog safe. Know the signs and you can:

  • Remove your dog from a potentially dangerous situation
  • Stop your dog being a nuisance when out and about
  • Work out the reason behind unwanted behaviours and train your dog to do something else instead
  • Allow your dog to make the most of his or her natural talents

Doggy body language – what does it mean?
I’m sure most people will recognise that a waggy tail is a positive thing but a dog’s tail is in no way the only bit that sends out messages.

Here’s the thing though. Every dog sends out slightly different signals, depending on the breed, the character of the individual and the situation they are in at that particular moment.

Getting to know your own dog
Before you start trying to translate your dog’s messages. Get to know your pet really well.  How do they look and behave when they are relaxed and happy? Tail between the legs for example is normal posture for a whippet whilst a Bassett hound would struggle to push his ears right forward.
When you are watching your own dog’s behaviour, remember too that he or she won’t interact in the same way with every dog or person that they encounter. There must be people in your life who you love to spend time with and others that you struggle to be polite to.  Dogs are no different.
Rough guide to doggy body language
Let’s go through some body language starting at the head and working towards the tail.  
Looking away from a person or a thing can indicate that a dog is not comfortable with it. Shy dogs typically will not make eye contact. 
Showing the whites of the eyes is often sign of discomfort or stress
Different breeds of dogs have differently shaped ears so you really do have to know your dog. Pricked ears indicate interest
Relaxed ears are always good to see
Ears folded into the side of the head are a sign of discomfort
Lip licking, panting or yawning are all signs of stress. A slightly open mouth is fine. If the lips are peeled back and the teeth are showing your dog is probably very afraid.  Having said that, some dogs do “smile”. Look at the mouth in conjunction with the rest of the body.
Our dogs’ wild cousins rarely vocalise unless it is to alert their packmates of danger. And that is the main reason for our pets to bark when the doorbell rings or the postman walks up the path.
Puppies will yelp if their littermates play a bit too rough.
Some pet dogs though have learned that when humans make sounds it means something. I know of one Labrador who starts barking at her owner at 4.45 every day. She’s making eye contact, her tail is wagging and her ears are forward. This particular dog is fed at 5pm and it seems as though she’s letting “Mum” know that it’s nearly time for tea.
If a dog is issuing a warning the hair on the back of its neck (aka the hackles) will stand up. The same thing happens to me if I sense something bad is going to happen eg when watching a horror film.
The speed of the tail wag and the position of the tail tell us a lot about how a dog is feeling.  Tail tucked between the legs with just the tip wobbling suggests fear. Tail straight up in the air, no wagging and hackles raised means “back off buster” But Tail straight up, with small fast wags and accompanied front legs flat on the ground could an invitation to play.
Whole body
A dog’s stance can tell you a lot about how it is feeling. A worried dog will crouch down low to make itself as small as possible without preventing it from running away fast if needs be.
If a dog is sitting or standing up straight and trying to look bigger, it’s ready for action. I see that a lot at gundog training classes when one of my ‘pupils’ is anticipating a retrieve. The ears come forward, the chin is parallel to the ground, the eyes are focussed on the object and they’re just waiting for the cue to “go fetch”

Doggy body language is awesome and if you know how to read it you can really enrich your dog’s life.

Lovely relaxed body language from Rosa. In this video we’re doing some training to help her overcome her reactivity to traffic. I’m keeping a close eye out for any signs of distress.


Giving your dog extra communication skills
So far we’ve talked about you understanding your dog and reacting to the cues he or she gives you. But communication is of course 2-way. How can you help your dog to understand you? This is the basis of reward based dog training.
By watching your dog’s behaviour and consistently marking and rewarding the behaviour you want to see you can give him the tools to communicate with you.
For example, if your puppy heads towards the door to let you know he needs to go out for a wee – that behaviour needs rewarding.
Assistance dogs are taught to alert their owners to all sorts of things – the doorbell, the phone, the bleep that says the washing machine has finished, a baby crying, a drop in blood sugar levels. And with patience and understanding your dog can learn how to communicate with and help you.
You might find these articles helpful too
Understanding how force-free training uses doggy body language
How to calm an excitable dog