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Understanding Dog Body Language Pt 1

Did you know that all dogs can talk? They may not be able to use words, but our canine companions can express a wide range of emotions and actions by communicating with their bodies. While we can’t sit down and chat with our dogs just yet, we can learn how to recognize and interpret dog body language to better understand what any dog may be telling us.To ‘read’ a dog, you must look at all the separate physical cues together to size up what the entire dog’s body language is saying. Here are some head-to-tail signs to note when meeting any new dog.

Because dogs don't speak our language, the only way to truly comprehend and communicate with them is for us to understand and appreciate what they are telling us through their body and vocal language. Often, gestures or actions that we assume mean one thing are actually the dog telling us the exact opposite, and determining what that wagging tail or exposed tummy really means can sometimes be the difference between a belly rub and a bite. Dogs communicate using a complex language of body signals that reflect what they are thinking and feeling. They use these signals consciously and unconsciously to communicate intent and ensure their personal safety by affecting behavior in others.

Appeasement & Displacement A dog might try to appease another by actively seeking attention via one or more of the following behaviors:

  • muzzle and/or ear licking

  • jumping up

  • lowering and curving the body

  • blinking

  • clacking or exposing the teeth “(“smiling”)

  • lip licking

  • lowering the head and ears

  • play bowing

Although much appeasement consists of this active body language, passive submission such as cowering and body freezing seems to be done in response to escalating fear in the presence of a perceived threat. A socially experienced dog receiving these signals will tolerate this language of appeasement and reciprocate with appropriate signals; other less experienced dogs might take advantage of this deference and attempt to control or aggress.

In addition to appeasement, dogs also commonly use displacement signals to avoid confrontation. These body signals are used to provide a distraction – a way of covering up what the dog is actually feeling. Yawning, sniffing, scratching, sneezing, and licking are all active behaviors that keep the dog calm and provide a distraction to refocus the attention of others away from him.

Common Body Language Any signal that is demonstrated by a particular part of the dog’s body must always be read in the context of whatever other body or vocal language the dog is communicating. Similar signals have different meanings in different situations, so the position of the body and other vocal signals will help you understand a dog’s intent and emotional state.

Stress/Discomfort/Nervousness Language When dogs are stressed and nervous they exhibit many different kinds of behavior that either help relieve the stress they are feeling or appease a perceived threat. While dogs like humans, yawn when they are tired, they are also much more likely to yawn when they are nervous. Lip licking does not always mean a dog is hungry or has just eaten either, but is a very clear stress signal that is performed when a dog is experiencing fear or nervous.

  • Yawning can be a sign that a dog is tired, but it also signals stress

  • Lip licking or tongue flicking. Dogs lick their lips when nervous

  • Brief body freezing – the dog is still for a few seconds before reacting

  • Body freezing – the dog freezes until the threat goes away or he decides to use fight or flight

  • 'Whale Eye' – the dog turns his head away but keeps looking at the perceived threat, showing the whites of his eyes

  • Head turn – the dog will turn his head away from a fear source as a gesture of appeasement

  • Furrowed brow, curved eyebrows – caused by facial tension

  • Tense jaw – the mouth is closed, and the dog is preparing for action

  • Hugging – a dog will gain comfort by holding onto his owner

  • Low tail carriage – indicates discomfort and uncertainty

  • Curved tongue – the tongue is curved at the edges from tension

  • Raspy, dry-sounding panting – nervousness reduces saliva production

  • Twitching whiskers – caused by facial tension

  • Shaking – caused by adrenaline release

  • Drooling – stress can also cause excessive salivation

  • Lack of focus – an anxious dog finds learning difficult

  • Sweaty paws – dogs sweat through their foot pads

  • Piloerection (hackles) – the hair on a dog’s neck and spine stands on end (like human goose bumps), making the dog appear bigger while releasing odor from the glands contained in the dog’s hair follicles

Appeasement/Deference Language Deference language is designed to appease a perceived threat, avoid injury and is crucial for survival. If the dog engages in non-threatening behavior this helps deescalate the negative intentions of another animal or human. Most appeasement behavior is extremely submissive with the dog lowering the body, making it appear smaller and less threatening. Socially appropriate dogs will respond positively to this deference while others often take advantage of what they perceive as weakness.

  • Head bobbing or lowering

  • Head turning

  • Averting eyes

  • Lip licking

  • Low tail carriage

  • Tail tucked between the legs

  • Curved and lowered body

  • Stomach flip – the dog flips over quickly, exposing his stomach; he is not asking for a belly rub, but signaling that he is withdrawing from interaction

Curious/Anticipatory Language Dogs are naturally curious animals and the more confident they are, the more they can deal with novelty and change. All dogs will size up any situation to ensure safety using the following language:

  • Head cocked to one side or the other

  • Front paw lifted - anticipating what will happen and what the dog should do next

  • Mouth closed - sizing up the situation in preparation for action

Displacement Language Displacement language helps the dog to self-calm and refocus attention away from them and onto something else. If