Dog body language is a universal language amongst all dogs. This means that dogs “speak” to each other in body language and in scent. No matter whether they are from America, Europe, Asia or Oceania, they understand each other by means of body signals and scent.
An average adult dog has about 220 million scent receptors in his nose. The first thing that new born puppies can do is smell, even before hearing and seeing. The very first thing they pick up in life is their mother’s scent and energy. It is not for about fifteen days later that the puppy opens its eyes and around twenty days later, the ears start to function.
Dogs greet by sniffing each other’s behinds. By sniffing they “read” the other dog’s state of mind: who they are, their whereabouts, and their social, aggressive, submissive, antisocial and/or fearful behavior etc. They also communicate with dog body language. They use their ears, eyes, tail and body to express themselves.
Human beings greet each other by saying hello and shaking hands. We lost the ability to “read” each other’s body signals because we learned to speak and communicate with each other by means of words. But, we can not fool our dogs! They “read” our body signals as if they were reading a book!
They can feel exactly in what state of mind we are: either happy, sad, calm, excited, sick. Dogs are even able to feel the energy of the earth! Everybody heard stories of dogs predicting earthquakes or other nature disasters.
By using its dog body language, every calm, well-raised and socialized dog will avoid conflict situations. Therefore it is very important that growing up puppies have regular contact with other well socialized dogs in order to learn the dog body language signals. Most socialized full grown dogs will not attack puppies. They will tell the puppies which boundaries to respect, but they will never attack them viciously.
Some dogs, however, are not so well-raised and socialized. Their behavior can easily turn into aggression. Most of the time, it’s a dominance issue. But before the real fight is on, they try to scare each other off by growling and showing teeth. Normally, a fight is never to death, when one of the fighters submits, for example by lying on his back and showing his belly, the fight should be over.
But, can you speak “dog”? Are you capable to understand your dog? It is very important that we as humans learn to understand our dog’s body language, because the way we behave has a very big influence on our relationship with our dog and dogs in general. For us, humans, it isn’t simple to speak the dog body language.
We communicate with words, whereas dogs use their bodies. To fully understand our dog, you should see the whole picture, the whole dog. How does he carry his tail, his ears, what are his eyes telling us? Is he firmly standing upright or rather bending down? Is his fur lying flat over his back or does he look punk?
What is the best way to approach a dog? Which body language should WE use? When meeting a puppy or an adult dog for the first time, never approach it straight forward. Never make direct eye contact, because this may feel threatening. Approach sideways and keep some distance, let the dog come to you.
Because every dog is curious by nature, he will want to sniff you out. Don’t pet him or talk to him right away! Allow the dog to analyze you by sniffing. After a little while, this can be from a few seconds to a few minutes, you will see the dog relax and stop sniffing.
He will either ignore you or even turn away from you. This means you are no threat to him, but he shows no interest in you. Or, he rubs himself on to you to make contact. This is the time to interact. Don’t act or talk overexcited! Be calm and relaxed.
As stated above, dogs also communicate with scent. They can sniff if the other one is fearful, sick, excited… So, we as humans, start off with a handicap when learning how to speak dog! Nevertheless, dogs use a lot of body signals to express themselves. It is only up to us, to read the dog body language correctly. Here below, we listed some body signals which dogs use amongst each other. These are the same signals they use when they try to communicate with us.
Turn sideways or show their back
Turning sideways or showing their back is used as a calming signal to avoid conflict situations. You can even use these signals yourself. When a dog jumps up to you, turn your back to him. He will understand this signal and stop jumping.
But, your dog can send out calming signals for you too! For example when you are in a bad mood and you shout at the dog or pull his leash during the daily walk, your dog may turn his back to you and start sniffing around.
Maybe you will overreact because you think that your dog is pestering you. Definitely not!
By turning his back to you he will “invite” you to calm down and relax. However, if you misunderstand the signals, you may make the situation even worse. You start shouting and yelling. If your dog sees that his calming signals don’t have the required result, he may go over to signs of aggression (showing teeth, growling, barking).
Sitting or lying down
Another very strong calming signal is sitting or lying down. For example: two dogs who already know each other meet during the daily walk. The younger dog is overexcited and starts running around like mad, the older dog will sit or lie down thus inviting the other dog to calm down.
Signs of not feeling at ease
Turning the head
Sometimes a dog will turn his head away to show that he doesn’t feel at ease in a particular situation. This may happen when you bend over him or when another dog comes straight to him. This can also happen when you are trying to take a picture of your dog. Most of the time you will end up with a picture where your dog looks the other way.
Licking the nose
Another signal is licking of the nose. They use this dog body language when meeting a dog for the first time or when you pick them up.
Moving of the eyes
When threatened, a dog will stiffen his head, and move his eyes fast from left to right. He may even lower his eyelids.
When a dog is bowing down, front paws outstretched on the ground and the hind in the air, he is inviting you to play with him. Most of the time, his tail is wagging. When meeting another dog, they will most likely start running after or with each other, even jumping up to one another, lightly nipping each other, but always in a friendly manner.
You can mimic the same behavior by squatting and spreading your arms. When your dog is at a distance, this movement will make him want to run to you. Your dog sees this as an invitation to play. When your dog comes to you, you should always reward him by petting or playing with him.
Sometimes, your dog will shake his body. He is not trying to straighten his “hairdo”, or get rid of the water/dirt in his fur; this behavior can sometimes mean something else too. For example, you take your dog on his daily walk. Suddenly, there is a dust bin on the pavement. Your dog has never seen this thing before and is a little afraid. Don’t act or talk overexcited to your dog.
Stay calm and relaxed and let your dog explore this dust bin. As every dog is curious, this may put him in an ambiguous situation, staying far away from the dust bin or exploring it. This causes your dog to grow twice as long out of fear, but eventually, he will loose his anxiety and take a sniff. He shakes off the situation and continues his walk.
When a dog shows aggressive dog body language, always be alert. Most of the time, they’re only showing off in order to impress. Avoid making eye contact as this provokes them. Stay calm and relaxed, but alert.
Some dogs will start barking, when meeting someone or something they don’t know or trust. Most of the time, they’re simply scared and try to impress you with their dog body language. However, this behavior can lead to aggression. The best thing you can do is simply ignore the dog, don’t make eye contact. Don’t run away either as this will enforce their prey drift.
Showing teeth and growling
There are two forms of aggression: dominant aggression and fearful aggression. The position of the ears and tail is completely different in those two forms. Dominant: the ears are erect, and the tail is carried high. By fearful aggression the ears are slightly laid back, and the tail is carried low. Dogs can become aggressive over a lot of things, for example over a toy (possession), towards other dogs (dominant), when they’re afraid.
Understanding A Dogs Body Language
Dogs can’t talk so to communicate with us and other dogs they make use of a number of instinctive behaviours and other responses. All the dog senses are used to communicate but as they are different from humans this is where many misunderstandings and behavioural problems originate.
Dogs will put their bodies into various postures and make all kinds of noises such as growl, barks and whimpers to express their emotions. If we can learn to read all these signals this will go a long way in training the dog.
A dog’s body language is very important because it communicates the dogs status and current emotional state. It will consist of facial expressions, the dogs posture and even how its tail is positioned. So if you can learn to read all these body language signals that your dog exhibits it will go a long way to understanding how your dog is thinking and feeling.
Here are a just few of these body language signals that a dog shows.
When the dog is happy to see you or anyone else for that matter, its face will look relaxed its mouth will be pulled back and its tail will be wagging steadily. A dog will often stamp its feet, alternating its left and right front legs, while keeping its back legs still. This is generally when the dog is excited, wants something, or wants its owner’s attention.
When the dog has a high body posture and the head tail and ears are erect it shows that the dog is confident. If it’s tail and ears are held low and close to the body and its body posture is more crouched that means the dog is not feeling confident.
Understanding the body language of an aggressive dog is very important for obvious reasons. An aggressive dog will make its body seem larger by raising itself to its full height, its tail will be raised and it will lean forwards in a threatening manner. More obvious signs of aggression in a dog is staring, showing and curling its lips back to expose its teeth to you. Never make sudden movements or put your hand out toward the dog when you see this as it might bite.
When the dog is afraid it will try to make its body as small as possible. It will tuck its tail between its legs, hold its head down and cringe. It may also avoid eye contact and pull the corners of the mouth, almost like a grin. Rolling on its back in a submissive gesture is another indicator as well.
When the dog wants to play with you it does this with by exhibiting the so-called play bow, in which it lowers its forequarters whilst keeping its hind legs erect.
Although certain canine body language is specific to the dog, a few signals are more or less universal. Learning these mannerisms can give you an insight into your favorite canine’s mood. A few things are obvious. For example, a dog that is happy and excited will be wagging his tail, prancing around and/or jumping around. A dog that is cowering in the corner is afraid. Here are a few other common canine mannerisms and their meanings:
- Play Bow: Rear end up, front down, and tail wagging generally means “I want to play.”
- Tail Wagging: Doesn’t always mean that the dog is happy or friendly as is generally assumed. Some dogs also wag their tails when they are scared, agitated or unsure about a situation. Look for other signals to determine the dog’s mood.
- Rolling Over: Generally means the dog is being submissive. In effect the dog is saying, “You’re the boss.” Lots of times a contented dog also will roll over when she is happy and wants you to rub her tummy.
- Tail Between Legs and Ears Back: The dog is afraid or feeling apprehensive about something.
- Ears Perked Up: The dog is alert for some reason. During obedience class, the dog looking attentively at you with her ears perked up is ideal. It means your dog is paying attention to you and waiting for your next command (egad!).
- Frontal Approach: A dog standing still facing another dog or person with direct eye contact, hackles raised, and ears and tail up indicates dominance or a sign of imminent attack.
- Raised Paw: A dog who raises a paw with a bent foreleg is showing submission.
It can be interesting to just sit and watch a dog. By observing your dog, you’ll see how her posture changes and how she uses her ears, eyes, eyebrows, lips, nose, mouth, tail, and coat to express her mood. You can be sure that your dog knows your body language, so if you take the time to learn her body language, you’ll be one step closer to improving the relationship you have with your dog.
When reading a dog’s body language it’s vital that you understand that you have to study the dog’s whole body and not just the mouth or tail before deciding what the dog is feeling. This is important because what might look like an invitation to play might actually be aggression.
These are only a few signals of dog body language. Most of the time, it takes us humans years of practice to understand what dogs are telling us. Moreover, a specific sign of body language can mean several things. A specific word in our spoken language can also have different meanings. It is the same in dog body language.
The most important thing we can do is to look at the general picture, to look at the total dog behavior at that moment and in that particular situation and try to understand our dogs and act the right way.