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Dog body language: What's your canine trying to tell you?

March 16, 2021

How well do we appreciate a dog’s communication skills? Much of what they have to say is expressed through the body. And it makes a lot of sense. Their ancestral wolves, after all, are social pack animals. Hence, dogs come with these baked-in instincts to display their mood and intention through sound, scent and body language.

Here’s quick list of things canines convey through body language and what they mean.

1. Flicks of the tongue: “I’m feeling stressed”

Maybe you’re waiting in the lobby of the veterinarian’s office with your furry friend, when suddenly, you become aware that your dog is making these uncharacteristic flicks of the tongue. Just for a moment, his tongue laps at his nose. What you’re seeing is the classic nose lick, which is considered a self-calming behavior, explains Susan Frank in “How your pet communicates feelings,” in the first segment of episode 4 of Raising Your Paws podcast. (To find a link to your favorite podcasting platform, click here.)

Quick, rapid-fire nose licks are your dog’s special signal that he’s feeling uneasy. The same goes for a sudden onset of yawns when he’s not tired.

Now that you know this, pay attention to how your dog is responding to his surroundings and how people behave. You may learn something new about your best friend.

2. The head-to-tail shake-off: “I didn’t like that”

If your dog does a head-to-tail shake-off — and he’s not wet — it’s a way for him to release tension. When it happens, note what happened just before. The shake-off is his way of saying, “I’m not comfortable with this; please stop.”

He may have thought his canine playmate was playing too rough, and the shake-off is a warning that he’s prepared to bow out unless the dog starts minding his manners. Or maybe the kids were lavishing him with attention and hugs, and he finds it’s all too much.

(By the way, though humans are big on hugging, most dogs aren’t fans of this expression of affection. In fact, many might tolerate hugs from the people they know. What looks like dogs hugging each other when they are playing has a different meaning from a human hug. Finally, no one should ever hug an unfamiliar dog they have just met.)

In any case, when you see a full-body shake-off, the message he’s sending is the situation is intense and uncomfortable for him.

3. The head tilt: “I’m trying to understand”

It’s universally adorable when a dog cocks his head to the side. Why do dogs tilt their heads? Dogs have excellent hearing, and by adjusting their head position along with their ear flaps, they can gather more data about a distant sound that’s grabbed their attention. Where is it coming from, and how far away is it?

But you may have noticed your dog tilts his head when you’re standing right in front of him talking. Most likely, he’s just trying to get a read on your mood and intentions, so he can figure out what’s happening next and what you expect of him. He may be focused on your tone, inflection and facial expression. Though you don’t speak the same language, your dog’s head tilt is a sign that he’s doing his best to catch your meaning.

[Does your dog love you? Here’s how you can tell]

4. Crouching: “Let’s play!”

One position that tells you a dog is happy and excited is the play bow. Dogs invite other dogs and sometimes humans to play by lowering their chest to the ground, front legs stretched before them, while pointing their rears upward. Usually, it’s accompanied by enthusiastic tail wagging. With other dogs, the play bow sends a friendly canine code: “Any grrrs, chasing and wrestling that come next are part of my game. So don’t worry, we’re friends!”

[Read on about why dogs need play and how you can help]

5. Staring: “I’m interested”

Dogs express themselves through body language, but that doesn’t mean the face doesn’t play a role. With other dogs, eye contact is a way to confront. He could be asserting dominance or challenging the other dog to a fight. But dogs have learned that human gazes can be different. (A direct stare from a strange human can be interpreted as threatening.)

In fact, dogs know that when friendly, familiar humans look at them directly, it can lead to rewards like treats, an outing, dinner and ear rubs. A study discovered that dogs actually focus on the eye region of humans to gauge their emotions and get their cues. When your dog is staring at you intently, he wants to know what’s next.

6. The look-away: “I don’t want to deal with this”

To a dog, evading eye contact also sends a message. But you’ll want to take the situation into account.

Looking away can mean, “I need a break.” Dogs look away when they want to let you know they’re not feeling up to interaction or play, and need some alone time. You may notice this in older pets or after a long play session with the kids or other dogs.

Another reason dogs avoid eye contact is to appease you. Let’s say you’re scolding him for getting into the trash or shredding your favorite sneaks. He’s not sorry, per se. He’s sorry you’re upset. Dogs have evolved to understand that when their human is angry or upset with them, it’s a threat. Looking away helps a canine defuse the conflict and appeal to their human to stop being angry, concluded researchers from the University of Helsinki.

If you have an adult dog that avoids any and all eye contact, a little training can put him at ease and help the two of you build a better connection. Start by encouraging him to look up at you, and reward him with a delicious training treat.

7. Tail position: “Pay attention, I’m sending a message”

Tail positioning and movement can tell you what’s going on with your dog, whether your dog is feeling friendly or if he’s about to attack another dog. Here’s a basic guide to tail positions to help you know and understand your pet.

Tail wagging: We tend to equate tail wagging with canine joy. It can also be a gauge of his excitement to the stimuli, which is why you might see territorial barking accompanied by high, rapid-fire tail wagging. Of course, when you return from vacation, your dog’s full body wiggles are telling you he’s overjoyed to see you!

Raised tail: A tail raised high, like a flag, signals a dog that’s feeling confident, in control and sure of himself. The tail could be curled over his back or simply raised vertically.

Horizontal: Something has your dog’s attention. Pay attention to the tension. If the tail is straight out but relaxed, he’s interested and focused, but not feeling threatened or alarmed. For example, maybe he’s monitoring a squirrel, or listening for you to come to the door to let him in. If the tail is stiff and motionless, your dog is on high alert but still assessing the threat.

Lowered tail: A tail that’s held lower than a normal, relaxed position indicates the dog is feeling submissive, even anxious about the situation or surroundings. When it’s curled under the body, the dog is telling you he’s afraid. Take it as a sign to remove the scary stimuli and comfort your pet.

How to tell your dog’s mood when he doesn’t have a tail

Of course, this type of guide can leave out many types of dogs. Some breeds, such as pugs, have tightly coiled tails, so there’s little variation in tail positioning. And some dogs have docked tails.

It’s important to understand that tails are not the only thing you should look at to get a read on your dog’s mood. Ear position, spine, vocalizations and posture can give you plenty of other information about his state of mind. Ask yourself:

  • Is your dog calm or alert?
  • Is he tense or interested?
  • Is the situation familiar or is it new and uncertain?

[Learn all about what makes your dog bark and why they do it]

Learn your dog’s language

Dogs are keenly interested in what we humans are up to. Luckily, the pack animal tendencies in dogs are still very much with them, so it’s also possible for us to decipher their minds and moods. Become a student of your dog’s postures, along with his actions and the sounds he makes. With practice and experience, you’ll become fluent in your dog’s language.

To help you get a better read of the canine species, you’ll want to become a subscriber to the Raising Your Paws podcast. Our host, Susan Frank, brings you the latest expert advice and insights so you can better understand your dog and what his behaviors mean. Find it in your favorite podcast platform and start subscribing today!