Understanding your dog’s body language is more than just a skill; it’s a gateway to forging an unbreakable bond built on trust, respect, and mutual understanding. In this guide, we decode the intriguing world of canine nonverbal communication, from tail positions and wagging patterns to the language of their eyes, facial expressions, and posture.
Happy, Content, Relaxed
Dogs will display happy, relaxed, and content behaviour when they feel safe and have all their needs met. They will usually be in the presence of someone they love and trust – such as their primary caregiver who they are very familiar with and trust completely. Some of the behaviours displayed when a dog is feeling happy can be confused with a frightened or nervous dog. For example, if a dog has done something wrong like stolen food they know they shouldn’t have, they may wag their tail and come up to you, but they will not be feeling content or relaxed. It is important to take the circumstances of the situation into account.
Tail: A wagging tail that moves in a loose, fluid manner is a typical sign of excitement. Dogs may also have a bouncy gait, and their movements might be quick and animated.
Posture: When relaxed, dogs often stand with their weight evenly distributed on all four paws. They might stretch out or lie down on their sides, exposing their belly, which indicates trust and contentment.
Eyes: Excited dogs may bark or vocalise in a high-pitched and eager tone. They might also whimper or whine with excitement.
Face: When excited, a dog’s facial muscles may appear relaxed, and its eyes may be bright and wide open, showing interest in its surroundings.
Stressed, Anxious, Fearful
Dogs become stressed and anxious for a variety of different reasons. The response to the potential stressor depends on the individual dog. It can be something like a loud unpredictable noise, or being in a new, unfamiliar place. Strangers or new dogs can cause stress and anxiety. A change in routine can also trigger this sort of behaviour. Stressed or anxious dogs may show similar signs to aggressive dogs just before they bite. Stress and anxiety are often displayed just prior to your dog showing signs of aggression so monitor them closely if you see these signs.
Tail: A stressed or anxious dog may tuck its tail tightly between its hind legs or hold it low, almost pressed against its body. If they wag their tail in this state, it may be stiff and rapid.
Posture: Anxious dogs might hunch their shoulders or cower, trying to make themselves appear smaller. They might also avoid direct eye contact.
Eyes: When a dog is anxious or fearful, their eyes may appear wide, with dilated pupils. The whites of their eyes might be visible, indicating stress.
Face: A stressed dog might lick their lips frequently, yawn excessively, or pant heavily. Their mouth may be closed tightly, and their forehead may wrinkle.
Excitement Vs. Arousal
Excitement and arousal are two related but distinct emotional states in dogs. Learn more about the difference between the two here: The difference between dog excitement and arousal.
Tail: An excited dog’s tail will wag more enthusiastically and might be held higher than usual. However, if the arousal escalates, the tail might stiffen and raise higher, signalling a potential change in behaviour.
Posture: In excitement, dogs may stand tall with their front legs slightly lifted. When arousal intensifies, they might stiffen their posture or even jump.
Eyes: Excited dogs will have bright, alert eyes, showing interest in their surroundings. As arousal increases, their gaze might become more intense and focused.
Face: An excited dog may have a relaxed mouth with a broad grin, tongue out, and panting. In higher arousal, their facial muscles might tighten, and their mouth might close.
Aggression, Give Me Space
Dogs can show signs of aggression for many reasons. These can include feeling threatened in some way by a human or another dog, feeling frightened by someone or something unfamiliar. They may not want to share their food or personal space. They may be in pain and feel anxious and vulnerable. Usually, before a dog shows signs of aggression, they give other subtle signs they are not comfortable in the situation. Your dog may start yawning, blinking, or licking their lips. They may avoid eye contact and turn their head or their whole body away. These signs may seem harmless, but they can be the precursor to aggressive behaviour so they are important to look out for.
Tail: An aggressive dog may hold their tail high, possibly with a slight wag. But if the tail is stiff and raised very high or held straight out, it can signal a threat.
Posture: Aggressive dogs may lean forward, with their weight shifting onto their front legs. They might also exhibit a stiff and tense body posture.
Eyes: Aggressive dogs have piercing and intense stares. Their pupils might be dilated, and they may avoid blinking.
Face: An aggressive dog’s lips may be pulled back to reveal its teeth, and it might snarl or growl.
There are many reasons a dog may show signs of boredom. Dogs become bored if they don’t have enough stimulating activities to keep their brain engaged. If they lack exercise, training, positive interactions with humans and other animals or they don’t have enough toys, they are likely to get bored. Signs of boredom can be very similar to signs of separation anxiety, both boredom and separation anxiety can cause a great deal of distress to your dog so it is important to recognise and address these behaviours.
Tail: A bored dog’s tail may hang down low and move sluggishly, if at all.
Posture: Bored dogs might slump or lie down lethargic. They may also yawn frequently as a sign of disinterest.
Eyes: A bored dog’s eyes may appear droopy or disengaged, lacking the spark seen in happier states.
Face: Bored dogs may have a closed mouth and a lack of expression.
Remember, interpreting dog body language is not always black and white. Always consider the context and the overall body language rather than focusing on individual cues. Pay attention to the combination of signals your dog is giving you to get a better understanding of their emotional state. By learning to read and respond to your dog’s body language, you can enhance your bond and ensure a happier, healthier relationship with your canine companion.
The information in this article has been fact checked by Dr. Emma Chandley BVetMed PGCertSAS MRCVS