Have you ever wanted to know more about what your dog is trying to tell you? Mainly, dogs are social animals that have a unique way of communicating. These traits allow them to express their emotional state or their intentions as they interact with people or other animals around them.
Even though dogs do use sounds and cues, they’ll often convey most of the information through their body language. More so, this is in the form of facial expressions as well as body postures. This is the reason why dogs are commonly taken as emotional support animals.
Understanding how your dog communicates and what it’s saying can help you gain useful information. It allows you to know when the dog is spooked or nervous — especially about what’s going on. Else, when your dog is on edge and perhaps might be preparing to snap at someone.
Often, all you need to do is observe the dog’s facial expressions or note its body language. And to help you understand more on this subject, we’ve created a sort of visual description that enables you to interpret the most common and important messages your dog could be sending you.
Body language basics
How can you communicate with your dog? Start by understanding animal communication is more than words. Dogs do talk, but they have a distinct way of passing information to their owners and other dogs.
Most dog owners will acknowledge the fact their four-legged family members voice their concerns using their bodies. Typically, these dog body signals include:
Face — A dog may wrinkle or straighten its forehead when it wants to express confusion or determination.
Eye cues — A dog’s eyes will light up when it looks at someone or another animal it considers friendly. Conversely, the dog’s pupils will dilate, and the whites of its eyes will show when the dog is afraid.
Lips, teeth tongue signals — Assuming your dog is happy or desires to play, it’ll routinely pull its lips back and display its teeth (in what apparently could be a smile). Regardless, this is a gesture every so often reserved for human/dog communication; in fact, a dog won’t behave in the same manner as other dogs.
Ears — What should a dog’s raised ears tell you? This pose informs you of the relaxed nature of the dog. Likewise, it could pass the message that the dog is attentively listening. But if the direction of the ears is backward, this might be a sign of submission.
Tail — The way a dog wags its tail demonstrates how it feels. If the dog wags its tail more to the right, this could signal positive feelings. Alternatively, if it wags its tail with moderate frequency to the left side, this probably indicates negative emotions.
Also, it’s essential to know and understand the following behavioral cues that you’re likely to come across during your interactions with a dog.
A relaxed and approachable dog
- Ears up (not forward)
- Head high
- Mouth slightly open, with the tongue exposed
- Loose stance, with the dog’s body weight flat on its feet
- Tail down and relaxed.
Usually, the dog has a relaxed posture and is reasonably content. Aside from the dog appearing unconcerned, it also feels unthreatened by activities going on in its immediate surroundings and is, therefore, generally approachable.
An alert dog
- Ears forward-oriented (may twitch almost as if it’s trying to catch a sound)
- Eyes wide in appearance
- Smooth nose and forehead
- Often, the mouth is closed
- Front limbs are slightly forward-leaning and the dog stands tall on its toes
- Dogs tail is horizontal (not stiff or bristled).
If the dog detects something of interest or unknown subjects, these hints communicate that it’s now alert and attentive. Here, the dog assesses the situation to ascertain possible threats or determine if it’s necessary to take any action.
A dominant, aggressive posture
- Ears forward and may appear to spread slightly to the side forming a wide v shape
- Usually, the forehead may divulge vertical wrinkles
- Dog’s nose may show wrinkles
- Its lips appear curled
- Visible teeth (and sometimes also the gums)
- The mouth is open (C-shaped) and the corner of the mouth has a forward orientation
- Stiff-legged upright pose, with the dog’s body leaning slightly forward
- Its tail is stiff, yet you may notice the tail quivering or vibrating from side to side
- The dog also seems to raise its tail and often the tail bristles
- Hackles have a raised appearance.
In this instance, the dog is establishing its dominance while also exhibiting confidence. Besides this being an expression of social dominance, this stance indicates perceived threat, and the dog may act aggressively upon any slight provocation.
By understanding how your dog behaves once it perceives a challenge (whether dominant or submissive), perhaps you’ll find a way to guide your relationship with the dog.
Besides, it affords you a level of awareness that enables you to evaluate how your dog behaves or acts around people and other dogs.
A fearful or aggressive stance
- Ears have a backward appearance
- Eyes with pupils dilated
- Wrinkled nose
- Slightly curled lips (somewhat visible teeth)
- The corner of the mouth pulled back
- Dog tucks its tail (little to no movement)
- Dog’s body lowered
- Hackles seemingly raised.
The dog is frightened. Regardless, the dog might not be submissive and can attack when pressed. Usually, a dog will give these indicators when directly facing a subject who appears as a threat.
A stressed or distressed dog
- Ears have a backward orientation
- Usually, the eyes have dilated pupils
- Rapid panting (corner of mouth back)
- Dog sweats through its pads
- Tail down
- It lowers its body.
Mainly, these attributes indicate the dog is under social or environmental stress. Furthermore, the traits make you aware of the dog’s state of mind.
Fearful or worried dog
- A smooth forehead
- Ears backward
- Brief and indirect eye contact
- May lick the face of another dominant dog or else the air
- Corner of mouth back
- Raised paws
- Often, the dog may leave behind sweaty footprints
- Its tail is down and may wag slightly
- Dog lowers its body.
Such a dog is somewhat fearful. Likewise, it could be displaying signs of submission. Such signs have the intention of appeasing the subject it perceives as being of higher social status or potential threat to the dog. Overall, these characteristics indicate the dog is opposed to further challenges or wants to avoid conflict.
Pay close attention to these signs because the dog may be communicating its discomfort in its current environment, and you perhaps need to assuage the dog to relieve its anxiety.
Extreme fear or total submission
- The dog turns its head to avoid any form of direct eye contact
- Partly closes its eyes
- Its nose and mouth have a smooth complexion
- Corner of mouth back
- Sometimes the dog may sprinkle drops of urine
- The dog tucks its tail
- Dog rolls on its back exposing its stomach and throat
- Flat ears and backward.
These characteristics in a dog indicate total surrender or submission. The dog is trying to communicate its acceptance of lower status by cowering before a higher ranking subject or threatening individual while attempting to avoid any physical confrontation.
- Dog’s tail is up and may broadly wave
- Its ears are up
- Dilated pupils
- Mouth open with the tongue usually exposed
- Dog lowers its front limbs by bending its forepaws
- Often the dog may only hold this stance for only a while before breaking into a quick run in some random direction.
This attribute is an invitation to play. Apart from excited barks, playful attacks or retreats may also accompany the stance. Even so, it could also mean any previous supposed rough behavior wasn’t a threat or a challenge.
Dogs communicate much like the way humans do. Take time and look at their body language, and you’ll understand what they desire from you!
Bradley Aron is the head of content for the EzCare clinic, a medical clinic that provides world-class health care services. He has been associated with the health care industry for 10+ years and specializes in health care and medical content.