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An Expert Guide To Dog Body Language

Man patting a dog

If you ask any dog-parent what they want for their faithful friend, they will all reply health and happiness. Whilst dogs can’t speak, they are some sure-fire ways we can figure out how they are feeling. We just need to know what we’re looking for.

The most useful tool in your arsenal as a dog-owner is understanding their body language. Not only to figure out how they are feeling, but it can help you avoid potential disastrous interactions with other dogs, kids, and people. We’ve put together a handy guide to help you understand your companion’s body language in the home.

In an ideal world, all dog’s will be amenable, relaxed and interested in what’s going on. But we could argue the same about humans. It’s never going to happen. Dogs can have bad days, they may be tired, they may be old and grumpy.

Welsh Corgi smiling while sitting on the grass.

NOTE: If you’re bringing a new dog home, check out my article, “8 Essential Steps to Bringing a New Dog Home”

A happy dog will have a fluid body, relaxed. Their tail may be up or down, depending on their breed. For example, a Beagle’s tail is usually up, most of the time. Whereas for dogs like the Golden Retriever whose tail is usually down, if it goes up, pay attention to the rest of their body and behavior.

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A happy dog will wag its tail in a good rhythm. Their ears will be standard for their breed, a Labradors ears will lie flat, a German shepherd’s will be up. Their movement will be easy and soft.

But just like humans, dogs can experience a range of emotions too! They can be anxious, scared, wary, nervous and outright petrified!

They can react in different ways. But they tend to freeze, flight or fight.

They may try to make themselves smaller, curl up or cower away. They may tuck their tail between their legs. If they typically have pointy ears, they will go flat. Their eyes may become wide or they may avoid eye contact, not wanting confrontation.

They may just stand there. Still. Their eyes may be scanning the environment, but their body is rigid. Their tail will likely be tucked under. You may notice their hackles are raised. This is an attempt to make themselves look bigger to ward off any potential threat.

The most obviously stressed dog is the typical aggressive dog. Hackles raised, barking, excessive salivating, he may be lunging or attempting to bite.

Sad-looking pug

None of this is likely news to you. You’ve probably all seen a dog behave in one or all of these ways. Unfortunately, it’s the more subtle nuances that are often missed when reading dog body language. Those ones that immediately tell you the dog isn’t happy, the ones so subtle it often results in someone saying “but they did it with no warning!”

The only time a dog won’t give a warning is if they’ve been punished for doing so, the rest of the time they will. You just need to watch out for them. (Note: never punish any of these nuances, deal with them as soon as you see them).

Subtle signs your dog is unhappy or stressed:

  • Lip licking,
  • Yawning,
  • Salivating,
  • Sudden body rigidity,
  • Lip curls,
  • Growls or grumbles,
  • Tentative walking,
  • Wide eyes,

Any of these suggest your faithful friend isn’t happy about something and either he or it needs to be removed from the situation.

Consider this when you are bringing guests or new visitors into the home. Whilst some dogs are super-excited to meet new people, some are not. They may be tired or just not that enamored with meeting people including kids.

Dog playfully biting the woman's nose.

Let your dog take the lead and if he wants to interact, let him, if he doesn’t, leave him to have his space. Any interaction with new people should leave your dog with a soft body, they are interested in the person and they may even try to instigate play or fuss.

If you notice any of the above subtleties, remove Fido to a safe haven, either another room or his den if he’s crate-trained. It’s not a punishment, it’s simply removing him from a situation he isn’t happy with. Just like us, humans won’t get along with every human we meet, we can’t expect our pooches to get along with everyone they meet either.

Our job as a dog owner is to help our companions navigate this world the best we can. Our dogs can’t tell us how they are feeling or why they don’t like Mr. Johnson at the end of the street, but they do their best to show us.

When we know what we’re looking for, we can help Fido manage those more difficult situations and potentially avoid disastrous ones. Understanding dog body language could be the most worthwhile things you get your head around in the pet-parent journey!

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