The Canine Language
Have you ever wished that your dog could talk to you? I’m sure, like millions of others, myself included, that you have. Well, I have good news for you, dogs do “talk” to us, and they do it a lot. There are 2 forms of communication, verbal and non-verbal. We are constantly communicating to our dogs, whether we know it or not, through non-verbal communication (body language). Humans mainly communicate verbally.
We use non-verbal communication as well, but by far our primary method of communicating is verbally. Dogs, however are just the opposite. They mainly communicate through body language. They communicate verbally through whining, growling, howling, whimpering, etc.., but their primary method is through body language.
When interpreting what a dog is saying it is a MUST to take context into account. A dog can display the same body language in 2 different situations and she is not saying the same thing, even though it may look like she is. Context is everything when interpreting what your dog is trying to tell you. The body parts you need to pay attention to include the mouth, eyes, ears, position of the head, whether the body is stiff vs relaxed, hair along the top of the back (piloerection), and the tail.
All of these must be looked at together. For example, a dog that has his ears up and forward could be curious or be in a heightened state of attention and on the verge of aggressive behavior. It depends on what the rest of her body is doing. I will start at the head and work my way back. Remember, one body part will not give you a truly accurate assessment of what your dog is saying without looking at all the parts as a whole and without considering the context in which the signals are given.
- Generally, an open mouth/relaxed jaw indicates a relaxed dog. On the other hand, a closed mouth can indicate a heightened state of attention and possibly, but not necessarily, impending aggression.
- If your dog is panting and suddenly closes his mouth, with ears erect and forward, something has likely caught her attention and she is focusing on it. This does not mean aggression, but things can go in that direction depending on the situation.
- The mouth can also give you clues as to what the underlying motivation is when your dog is growling. Is she fearful, or is she confident? A fearful dog will trying to show all of her teeth (incisors, K-9′s, and molars) when she growls (as in the picture here). It’s kind of analogous to a bluff in humans. She is saying “look at all my big scarey teeth,” but thinking “oh my God I hope this thing leaves me alone.” A dog that is confident will only show the incisors and K-9 teeth when growling. This is a dog that is not afraid of the situation. This is the growl of a dominant (confident is actually a better term) dog.
- Other body parts will help you to interpret mouth position. Ears that are up and forward indicate confidence or curiosity. Ears that are down and back indicate fear and/or anxiety.
- Yawning is a sign that she is uncomfortable and/or tense.
- More specifically, licking of the lips. Dogs that are uncomfortable will often lick their lips. Usually, this type of lick is a quick lick. The tongue barely comes out of the mouth and goes back in really quickly. This is a signal of submission/appeasement/acknowledgement. For example, say you have caught your dog in the act of doing something she should not be doing, you say “no!” to her, and she looks in your direction and gives one of those quick licks. She is saying, “okay, I understand that you are upset, please calm down now.” If you continue scolding or punishing her, you will likely make her fearful of you because she is giving you submissive signals that are being ignored.
- A lick that is more pronounced is usually an indication of moderate to severe stress. With this type of lick, the tongue travels all the way back to the corner of the mouth. This is much more obvious than the quick flick.
- It’s been said that the eyes are the windows to the soul. Well, when interpreting canine behavior, they are also a window into the mind. What you need to pay attention to is the direction of the gaze, the position of the eyelids (open wide vs squinting), and pupil size.
- Dogs that are uncomfortable will often squint and look away from whatever is causing the discomfort. A very common example of this is picture taking. Your dog may be looking at you and you see the perfect picture, but the second you raise the camera, she looks away. The camera is making her uncomfortable and she is trying to tell you that.
- If her eyes are wide open and she is looking directly at something or someone, she is at attention and may be issuing a challenge or threatening someone or something. Again, this doesn’t mean aggression, but she is closer to aggression than she was just a few seconds before.
- Pupil size can indicate calmness or stress (fear, anxiety, aggression). Obviously ambient lighting affects pupil size, so lets say that there is normal room lighting. Under normal room lighting conditions, dilated (large) pupils indicates arousal or stress. Normal pupil size indicates relaxation.
- Scanning of the eyes, looking back and forth and all around, usually while panting, with the ears back, and the head held low, is another sign of stress/anxiety.
- Blinking is a sign of submission.
- In general, the larger the eyes are, the more confident/threatening the dog is. Conversely, the smaller the eyes are, the more submissive/fearful the dog is.
- A dogs ears say a lot about it’s state of mind. The 2 extremes of ear position are straight up and slightly forward, which indicates confidence and attention (see Picture), and back and glued to her head, which indicates extreme fear and anxiety. What happens in between those 2 extremes is an indication of the intensity of the emotion she is feeling.
- Ears that are erect and as forward as they can be (often accompanied by bared teeth and a wrinkled nose) indicate that one should choose their next move carefully. This is a confident dog that will fight/bite if pushed too far.
- Ears that are erect and slightly forward indicates curious attention. Often the jaw is relaxed and open, but could be closed as well.
- Ears that are slightly pulled back and kind of splay out sideways indicates a suspicious/cautious emotion. She is not quiet fearful, but she is a bit uneasy about the situation.
- Ears that are pulled most of the way back can mean several things and other parts of the body must be considered when interpreting this position. If the teeth are not visible, eyes are slightly closed or squinting, the tail is tucked, and the head is held low, often accompanied by the quick lick, this is a sign of submission or she is signaling that she is not a threat. If the tail is held high, eyes are open, and the mouth is open and relaxed, this is a friendly posture and she is likely signally playful behavior.
- Ears that are pulled all the way back and are glued to the head, accompanied by a head that is held low, a tail that is tucked all the way under, and eyes that are squinting and scanning, indicates extreme fear/submissiveness.
- A wagging tail does NOT mean a happy dog. You must look at the position of the tail and the character of the wag.
- A tail that is held straight up/slightly curved of the back of the dog indicates attention and confidence (see picture). This dog is not at all afraid of what she is seeing. Often the tail will be stiff or have a slight wag that usually only involves the tip of the tail. This is not a happy dog.
- A tail that is held straight back/horizontal to the ground and is stiff/not wagging is signalling attention, but is a less aggressive posture that if it were held straight up. This is a cautious position and maybe a mild challenge to a stranger.
- If the tail is held horizontal, but not stiff, it is a sign of relaxed attention.
- A tail that is held just below horizontal, but not tucked between the legs, with an occasional relaxed wag that originates from the base (near the rear end) of the tail indicates a calm/relaxed dog.
- A tail that is near the legs, but not tucked in between, with a slight wag that involves mainly the tip of the tail, indicates insecurity/slight fear/slight anxiety.
- A tail that is tucked between the legs indicates a fearful dog.
- A tail with bristled hair down it’s entire length and is held upright indicates a threat/challenge.
- A tail that is bristled just at the tip indicates stress.
- A tail that is wagging from the base, usually the butt is wagging to, indicates a happy dog.
- A tail that is stiff, and just the tip is wagging, indicates a dog that is at attention. This is the wag that is present when I hear “I can’t believe he bit me! He was wagging his tail!”
- A special note is needed here: some dogs naturally carry thier tails low when relaxed (Greyhounds) and some naturally carry it high (Akitas).
- A dog with stiff legs, an upright posture, with slow and/or stiff movements forward is telling you that he is very confident. This is an active aggressive signal from a confident dog that is willing to assert himself. He is not necessarily being aggressive, but things could go that way if he is challenged.
- If hair is standing up on the shoulders and down the back, coupled with a stiff and upright body posture, watch out. He is a serious dog and you should choose your next move carefully. This is a sign of increasing aggression from a confident dog. An attack could stem from this.
- Hair that stands only on the shoulders, and not down the entire length of the back, indicates fear. Usually the head will be held level or low and the ears will be back. This dog will bite if pushed.
- A lowered body posture with a upward gaze indicates active submission. This is often accompanied by the quick lick discussed earlier and the ears are usually pinned back.
- If a dog sits when approached by another dog, but allows the other dog to sniff her rear end, she is saying that she feels they are pretty equal and is giving a slightly submissive signal. This could also be somewhat of a calming signal if she is uncomfortable with the other dogs’ approach.
- If a dog rolls on her side, avoids eye contact, and exposes her underside, she is displaying passive submission. This is the equivalent of groveling in humans
- If a dog stands over a dog that is lying down, or places her chin or paw onto the back of another dog, she is asserting dominance over the other dog.
- If a dog turns her side toward another dog she is saying that she has a slightly lower social ranking than the other dog. There is no fear, stress, or anxiety involved in this. This dog is confident and is okay with the hierarchy.
- If a dog is challenged or threatened by another dog and suddenly begins to sniff and/or paw at the ground, stares off into space, squints the eyes, or scratches herself, she is displaying calming signals to the other dog. She is not submitting. She is just telling the other dog to calm down.
- A dog that is sitting with one paw raised is signalling insecurity and mild stress.
- A dog that rolls on its back and rubs her shoulders back and forth on the ground is signally happiness and contentment.
- A dog that crouches with it’s front legs, but has her rear end up in the air is signalling the desire for play.
- In general, when a dog tries to make herself look bigger (standing tall, hair raised, head up) she is confidant and is displaying dominance signals. When a dog tries to make herself look smaller (crouching low, rolling over) she is being submissive. Pointing the body, head, or eyes in the direction of another dog indicates confidence and maybe a threat. Turning the body, head, or eyes away from another dog is a calming signal to the other dog.
Remember, and this is PARAMOUNT, when interpreting a dogs’ behavior, context is EVERYTHING. All of the surroundings must be considered and, in many cases, tiny details of the surroundings must be considered. Also, look at the entire dog. If you make a decision as to what your dog is saying, it should always be followed by “because his mouth was X, his eyes were X, his ears where X, his body was X, and his tail was X,” not just because of one or two of these. Happy conversing!
The drawings below are from “How to Speak Dog” by Stanley Coren.