Did you ever wish your dog could talk so you could better understand what they're thinking and feeling? Though they may never give you verbal insight into their internal monologue, dogs clearly show us their emotions—they use their bodies! Learning canine body language and how it connects to their thoughts and mood can improve your relationship with your dog and help you understand what they communicate to other dogs and people.
You can tell a lot about a dog by how they carry itself. A dog with a low, slinking posture is telling you that he is nervous, likely frightened, and doesn't want anyone to notice him. One with a relaxed posture and loose, wiggly movements tells you she is happy, comfortable, and ready to play or offer affection. Dogs who are very stiff and rigid in their posture and walk in a calculated fashion express confidence, but this may be aggressive or unfriendly.
If a dog is standing with one paw slightly lifted (and is suffering no injury), she tells you she's uncomfortable and anxious in that situation. "Piloerection", or a dog having their "hackles up," when a dog's hair stands up down its spine, signals they are feeling strong emotions. This may be overstimulation during an exciting situation, intense fear, or preparation for a fight. Finally, an incredibly endearing bit of body language is a "play bow," where a dog's torso is bent forward with its rear end up in the air. This is a clear symbol of "let's play!" and your dog tells you they are friendly and ready for fun.
If you ask any person on the street what an indicator of a happy or friendly dog is, they'll probably say a wagging tail. It's common knowledge, after all! Well…not quite. Though, in many cases, a wagging tail is a dog demonstrating happiness, it's more complex than that. When looking at a dog wagging its tail, consider not just that it's wagging but how it's wagging. Happy and friendly dogs will typically wag their tail in a circular fashion, sometimes with their whole rear end shaking in tandem. If a dog's tail tip is wagging slightly, with its base still pressed to its bottom, the dog is not entirely happy but trying to appease their person or another dog, demonstrating that they are not a threat. On the other hand, if a dog's tail is straight up in the air and wagging very slightly, this is the sign of a very confident dog—but one who very well may not be friendly and is fixing for a fight, typically with another dog.
Similar to the tail, watching the base of the ear is an excellent way to see what emotion the dog is expressing. A comfortable and relaxed dog will have ears that are "at rest" in a loose position on their head—whether that be sticking up on a German Shepherd or hanging pendulously like a hound dog. Perked ears that are up or moved forward express interest, focus, and/or curiosity. You may see this happen when you say words your dog knows, such as "walk" or "ball," or if they see a squirrel cross their path. Fearful dogs who feel uncertain may pin their ears down or to the sides of their head.
The eyes are one of the most expressive parts of the human face, and this can be true for dogs too! When dogs are content and happy, their eyes are at rest and sometimes squinted slightly, as though they are thinking serene thoughts. A calm, comfortable dog may also blink frequently, looking at their person with a "soft" expression in the eyes. A frightened dog may have wide eyes with enlarged pupils and blink infrequently, so they don't miss any potential threats. A dog staring intently at something is very focused and may be stalking something they view as prey (like a rabbit or cat). Dogs staring may also be preparing for a fight, which could be dangerous to whatever they see. If a dog shows the whites of their eyes, this is cause for concern. This is referred to as "whale eye" and often happens when a dog feels so unsafe they don't even want to turn its head, so they move its eyes. Whale eye can often be a precursor to a bite, so if you see it, be cautious!
While dogs don't smile as people do, they do express emotions with their mouths. Dogs who sport open, relaxed mouths, typically with a tongue slightly hanging out, feel content and comfortable. (This is different from a dog who may be panting due to the heat, as no labored breathing is visible.) Dogs with closed mouths, which do not show any other comfortable body postures we have mentioned above, may be experiencing some level of stress or discomfort. Sometimes you can even pinpoint when a dog becomes uncomfortable, from relaxed with an open mouth, to suddenly turning his head and closing his mouth. When a dog is experiencing anxiety, the corners of its lips may be pulled back as far as it can go, often accompanied by panting, drooling, or yawning brought on by stress. One of the most apparent emotions a dog may show through their mouth is a snarl—showing their teeth in a display of aggression. However, some dogs may also show their teeth in a "submissive grin." This happens when a dog's lips are pulled back over its front teeth and can resemble a snarl. However, unlike when they are snarling, they will look confident with ears forward, eyes intent, and a high tail. A submissive grinning dog will likely have a low posture, pulled-back ears, and usually a low-wagging or tucked tail.
Taking Physical Differences into Account
If you have a dog of a breed or breed mix with shortly docked or bob tails, such as a Rottweiler or Corgi, your ability to read their tail is impeded as there isn't much tail to speak of. The same principle applies to dogs with closely cropped ears, like Pit Bulls or Cane Corsos. Some dogs, such as Greyhounds, also have ears naturally pulled back against their head, which is their natural appearance and not indicative of fear. For dogs like this, you must pay closer attention to the appearance of their facial expressions and body posture to learn more about their state of mind. If your dog has a tightly curled tail, their tail is physically incapable of tucking like a dog with a straight tail would when frightened. Therefore, you must alter your understanding of their tail communication. For example, if your Pug's tail appears uncurled and sloping down its backside, this is its version of a tucked tail, and he is feeling quite afraid and uncomfortable. Likewise, suppose you have a terrier with a stiff tail that regularly points upward. This does not indicate she is confrontational or potentially aggressive unless the rest of her body is equally rigid or tense.
Reading Dogs on the Regular
Once you understand these basics in dog body language can help you decode so much of what your dog (and any others!) are telling you. It will help you more when training your dog, walking them in public, and reading when a situation might be potentially dangerous. Dogs around you will appreciate how they can depend on you to understand what messages they are sending out, thus feeling safer and more comfortable around you. After all, communication is vital to any relationship!