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Understanding the Language of Dogs

This article was written by Pet Community Center co-founder, former board member, and current Marketing Committee volunteer, Anna Henley. You can learn more about the author at the end of the post.



Communication is a vital aspect of any species, and dogs are no exception. While dogs don't speak our language, they have an impressive array of signals and cues to convey their emotions and intentions. Dogs are masters of body language. They use their entire body to communicate, from the tip of their ears to the wag of their tails. Let’s take a look at all the parts used for communication.


Body Posture

A dog's posture is a crucial element in understanding a dog’s body language as a whole. Here's an explanation of different body postures in canine communication:

  • Relaxed Posture: A relaxed dog exhibits a balanced body posture. Their weight is evenly distributed on all four paws, and their muscles are relaxed. The tail is typically in a neutral position, neither raised nor tucked. Ears are usually in a natural, upright position, and the dog's mouth may be slightly open, showing contentment. Overall, their body is loose and sometimes, even wiggly.

  • Tense Posture: When a dog feels threatened or agitated, he may adopt a tense posture, which includes a stiff body, sometimes leaning forward. It may include raised hackles, where the fur along the back and neck stand up, erect ears, and tail up. The key is their body is stiff and hard.

  • Play Bow: This playful posture involves a dog lowering his front end while keeping his rear end in the air. The play bow is an invitation to engage in play and is a common gesture during dog-dog interactions. This is a very specific body position.


The Eyes
  • Eye Contact

    • Soft Gaze: When a dog looks at you with a soft, relaxed gaze, it's often a sign of affection and trust. This is the kind of eye contact you want to see from your furry companion, as it signifies a strong bond between you.

    • Staring: Direct, prolonged eye contact can be seen as confrontational or threatening in the dog world. Some dogs may interpret it as a challenge. When interacting with a new dog or one you don't know well, it's usually best to avoid prolonged staring.

    • Avoidance: On the other hand, if a dog avoids eye contact with you or looks away frequently, it might indicate discomfort or the dog is feeling anxious or insecure.

  • Blinking and Winking

    • Slow Blinking: Dogs and humans can communicate trust and relaxation through slow blinking. You can try this with your dog – a slow blink followed by a soft, reassuring look can help them feel at ease.

    • Winking: Dogs can also wink, although it's more common for them to blink. A playful wink can be a sign that a dog is in a good mood and ready to engage in fun activities.

  • Dilated Pupils: Dilated pupils can indicate various emotions

    • Excitement: When a dog is excited, their pupils may dilate. This often happens in anticipation of play or when they see something they're interested in.

    • Fear or Aggression: Conversely, dilated pupils can also signal fear or aggression. If a dog's pupils are significantly dilated in a tense situation, it's a warning sign that the dog may be feeling threatened or ready to defend itself.

  • Squinting or Narrowing Eyes

    • Squinting or narrowing the eyes can be a sign of discomfort or aggression: Dogs may squint or narrow their eyes when they are in pain, feeling unwell, or getting ready to growl or show aggression. This is often paired with other body language cues such as raised hackles or a stiff body posture.

  • Slow Blinking as a Sign of Trust

    • Slow Blinking Between Dogs and Humans: Dogs may also engage in slow blinking with their human owners as a sign of trust and affection. When a dog blinks slowly at you, it's like saying, "I feel safe and comfortable around you."

  • Whale Eye

    • A Whale Eye is when you can see the white of the dog’s eye - often when they have turned their head away, but are keeping watch in the other direction. This is a sign that the dog is uncomfortable in their current situation. This is a sign that should not be ignored. This is the eye a dog gives when someone says “he had that look in his eye” after they’ve been bitten.


Ear Position: The Eloquent Ears
  • Forward Ears: When a dog's ears are perked up and facing forward, it typically signifies curiosity, attentiveness, or excitement. Dogs with erect ears are often in a state of heightened awareness.

  • Relaxed: Ears are neither pushed forward nor flat back. They may be slightly forward-pointing ears indicating a friendly and engaged demeanor. Dogs adopt this position when they are open to interaction and approach.

  • Flat Back Ears: If a dog's ears are pressed flat against their head, it can be a sign of fear, submission, or anxiety. This posture is often seen when a dog is feeling threatened, uncomfortable, or uncertain about a situation.

  • One Ear Back or Switching Positions: Sometimes, dogs exhibit the intriguing behavior of having one ear forward while the other is turned back. This can indicate indecision or mixed emotions. It is commonly observed in situations where a dog is unsure how to react or is assessing a complex environment.


Mouth Expression: The Silent Words

A dog's mouth can be a powerful indicator of its emotional state and intentions.

  • Relaxed Mouth: A relaxed, slightly open mouth with the tongue hanging out is a sign of contentment and comfort. Dogs often exhibit this expression when they are at ease, enjoying a pleasant moment with their human companions or fellow dogs.

  • Long Lips: This occurs when a dog keeps his mouth closed, but pulls his lips back towards the corners. This can indicate he is fearful or uncomfortable.

  • Tight or Pursed Lips: When a dog's lips are pressed tightly together, it may be a sign of tension or stress. This expression can precede growling or other defensive behaviors, indicating that the dog is feeling uncomfortable or threatened.

  • Bared Teeth: Bared teeth typically signify aggression or a threat display. This is an unmistakable signal that a dog feels cornered or is ready to defend itself. It's crucial to exercise caution when confronted with this expression.

  • Lip Licking: Lip licking is often a sign of anxiety or submission. Dogs may lick their lips when they are uncertain or uncomfortable in a particular situation, indicating a desire to de-escalate any potential conflict.



Tail Position: The Expressive Tail

Contrary to popular belief, a wagging tail doesn't always mean a happy dog. The speed, height, and position of the tail can convey different emotions and intentions.

  • Tucked Tail: A tucked tail, when pressed between the hind legs, usually signifies fear, submission, or extreme anxiety. Dogs adopt this posture when they feel threatened or uncomfortable, signaling their desire to avoid conflict.

  • Raised Tail: A tail held high, above spine level, often with a slight curve, can indicate confidence and alertness.

  • Straight Out Tail: When a dog holds its tail straight out behind it, it can be a sign of curiosity or engagement. This tail position often accompanies an alert and focused demeanor, indicating the dog's interest in something in its environment.

  • Wagging Tail: Tail wagging is one of the most recognizable dog behaviors. While it is often associated with happiness, it's crucial to consider the context and position of the tail. A broad, relaxed wag, often around spine level, suggests a content and friendly disposition. A stiff or high-wagging tail, referred to as flagging, may indicate excitement or even agitation. Conversely, a wagging tail held low could signal submission or uncertainty. A tail waggling like a propeller, known as a helicopter tail, is often a sign of excitement and sociability.


Vocalizations

While not specifically body language, canine vocalizations are a form of communication that shouldn’t be ignored. These are the basics.

  • Barking: Barking is one of the most common vocalizations dogs use to communicate. The pitch, duration, and frequency of barks can convey different messages. A sharp, high-pitched bark might indicate excitement, while a deep, continuous bark could signify a warning or threat.

  • Growling: Growling is often misunderstood as a sign of aggression, but it can also be a way for dogs to express discomfort or anxiety. Understanding the context and body language accompanying the growl is crucial in interpreting its meaning. A growl is a warning. Your reaction can determine what happens next.

  • Whining: Dogs may whine when they are anxious, in pain, or seeking attention. It's a way for them to express their discomfort or needs, and attentive owners can learn to distinguish between different whining patterns.


Now that the basics of body language have been covered, here’s a quick quiz to see how well you interpret the signals our dogs give us.


Building a strong bond with your canine companion involves not only understanding their communication but also responding appropriately to their needs and emotions. By paying attention to each part of the dog’s body, you’ll be able to know how your dog is feeling in any given situation. Remember that each dog is unique, and while these general guidelines can be helpful, it's crucial to consider the context and all body language cues when interpreting your dog’s behavior. These skills are essential to meeting our dog’s needs and emotions, leading to stronger bonds and happier, healthier dogs.


About the Author: Anna Henley

Anna Henley is a co-founder and former board member of Pet Community Center and currently serves on their Marketing Committee. She has 20 years of experience in animal welfare, including working at animal shelters in three states, volunteering with multiple rescue groups, and helping people and rescue groups with pet training and behavior services.



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