Dogs experience the world very differently than we do. We see things first and then listen to process our surroundings. If we want to interact we then use speech to communicate. Dogs on the other hand use scent as their main way of interpreting their environment. To communicate, they use mainly body language and some vocals.
In an article on Canine Communication by Animal Medical Center of Mid-America, they derive that, “Another major difference between human and canine communication is the type of information communicated. Language enables humans to communicate very specific messages. Dog communication involves the use of characteristic body posturing and shows emotional states, but not always specific intent or actions.
Communication between dogs and people does not occur through a tangible “language” so the messages that are shared across species tend to be more general in nature or can be missed or misinterpreted.” Learning how to read your dog (or another dog) can really be beneficial, and can possibly prevent a dog bite.
Look At Different Areas of a Dog’s Body
When trying to figure out what your dog is feeling, you just need to look at the different areas of the body, and assess the context of the current situation the dog is in. You will want to look at the overall body posture. Then look at the position of the ears, eyes and mouth.
What is the position of the tail?
Are there others dogs around?
Are there any children around?
All of these different aspects can give us clues to how the dog is feeling, and possibly what the dog might do. It is so easy to miss some of the changes in your dog’s body language when they are interpreting a threat or other negative concern, especially if you are engaged in something else, like having a conversation. The changes can be subtle and happen very quickly, even in seconds. The better you can read your own dog, the better you can help change a stressful situation before it escalates.
A couple words that are often used when discussing dogs are dominant and submissive. These two words are very frequently used and not always correctly. While dogs may have descended from hierarchal packs, it is not as significant as people think in the way dogs are today. Although, these words can be useful when describing interactions between dogs, but they are not very accurate when describing personality traits. And to quote HSMO , “However, it is important to realize that both assertive (commonly mislabeled dominant) and submissive body language have the same ultimate purpose: to forestall a potential threat and/or change the outcome of a social encounter. Note then that an escalation of aggression can result if an appropriate response does not occur (i.e., the source of the threat does not subside) whether the dog is displaying assertive or submissive signals. It is a common misconception for people to think that a “submissive” animal will not bite.” (1) You often hear some owners say “my dog never bit before” or “my dog isn’t dominant or aggressive” and they are right, but somewhere along the lines, their dog wasn’t comfortable with some situation and perceived a threat.
When learning to read a dog’s body language it’s easiest to start with a relaxed and happy dog.
- Head and ears in a neutral position
- Eyes soft, squinty or blinking
- Mouth closed or slightly open, tongue may be hanging out
- Relaxed body position and can be standing, sitting or lying down, if lying down one paw may be tucked under
- Tail if wagging can be very fast with a wiggly behind, a swishy back and forth motion, or going round “helicopter”
This is happy and confident. They can be just relaxing or they might just be enjoying the moment, a dog will initiate play from this state. Dogs may display some “submissive” behavior at this time, such as rolling on their back. But some play behaviors are considered appeasement behaviors. They are to signal to the other dog that it is ok to engage and they mean no harm.
Many people can understand signs of a dog that is afraid, but being nervous can have some of the same signs. These are signs your dog is nervous and or afraid and wants to remove themselves from the situation. If you do not help your dog in when they are feeling anxious or afraid it can easily escalate to aggression.
- Ears back or moving from alert to back
- Turning head away, avoiding eye contact
- Yawning, licking lips, panting
- Barking, trying to retreat
- Body cowering and/or shaking
- Pacing or spinning
- Hiding behind someone or something, leaning back
- Lifting one paw
- Tail between legs, tail low and slow wag, or tail straight
Arousal behavior can also be from different things. Mainly, it is from something your dog enjoys and they are excited about it. But it can also be that they are very interested and deciding a course of action. It can also be from something they view as negative too, a dog they feel threatened by, or even a human or a situation. Arousal can even come from too much confinement/lack of proper physical and mental outlets.
- Eyes open wide and focused
- Mouth closed or panting
- Body tense, leaned forward
- Tail high, stiff or slow wagging
If what is stimulating your dog is positive, such as another dog that your dog likes, they may engage in play at this time. A play bow is when a dog’s front end is low to the ground and back end in the air. Jumping, mounting, mouthing are normal then. A dog can also be in this state getting ready to chase a ball or a squirrel.
If you are at a park or another place with unfamiliar surroundings watch your dog’s body to make sure it doesn’t escalate into aggression. If you are walking your dog and you see another dog coming you can always turn and go a different way. Sometimes dog parks or busy towns are over-stimulating for a dog. A telltale sign your dog is over-stimulated is refusing to take a high-value treat. It is best to remove them from the situation if it gets to be too much for them. Dogs in this state do not want to be petted or receive affection. It is possible to receive a nip or small bite if you continue to try and pet a dog in this state.
When a dog is nervous, aroused, or wondering what is going to happen next, they may display some behaviors that are out of place; this is called displacement. One example is, greeting people at the door. Dogs normally greet each other by licking mouths and sniffing each other. Humans discourage this behavior when a dog is greeting a human, so the dog becomes nervous and instead of jumping up or sniffing, they will yawn, pace, bark, paw biting, go and gulp water, or some other out of place behavior. The dog’s energy has to go somewhere. The dog doesn’t want to be scolded, so they do these other behaviors but then they can end up being conditioned to be anxious in this situation. But they can be trained to sit or go and get a toy when people come over, giving them an appropriate outlet for the nervous energy.
Foremost, dogs are animals. Many pet owners do form strong bonds to their beloved companions, and this is a positive thing. However, they are still animals and aggression is normal for animals. If a dog perceives something as a threat, they are going to protect themselves and their possessions. This could be their food or toys, but can also be people, other dogs, and even territory. Most of the time, the aggression will start with warning signals and escalate, but there is always a possibility a dog may skip warnings and go directly for a bite.
- Eyes wide with some white showing
- Tense mouth, may show teeth
- Growls and or snarls (growls showing teeth)
- Nips (nips are intentional misses and are warnings)
- Head up and forward
- Stiff body, may be leaning forward, hair raising
- Guarding something
- There are also fast nips when the dog contacts the skin but doesn’t break it. This is also an intentional warning
- Tail stiff or wagging slow, high stiff slow wag or “flag” wave
As you can see, a wagging tail appears in a few categories and it is a misconception that if the tail is wagging it means the dog is friendly. Also, some behaviors overlap and have to be considered within the context of the situation. If your dog is getting stressed, you can change the situation. Learning your dog’s body language can keep you both happy and minimize the potential for dog bites.
Keep An Eye on Your Dog
When you dog is playing with other dogs, be observant since just like people, some dogs communicate better than others and there can be a misinterpretation of behavior that quickly turns aggressive. It is imperative to be even more perceptive of your dog’s body language when your dog is around children.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, “Children are, by far, the most common victims of dog bites and are far more likely to be severely injured.” (2) With this alarming statistic and knowing most dog bites are preventable, we can all do a little more to educate ourselves.
(1) Canine Communication – Interpreting Dog Language. Rep. Animal Medical Center of Mid-America and Humane Society of Missouri, n.d. Web. 07 Mar. 2017.
(2) ” Dog Bite Prevention.” Dog Bite Prevention. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Mar. 2017.