Dog body language is an interesting topic.Why? Because dogs have the uncanny ability to learn hundreds of human words. Far beyond the standard sit, stay and fetch, are nuanced exchanges that develop from a deep connection with their owners.
I’ve seen a dog place all of his toys back into a basket when he was told to ‘clean up,’ while another brought his owner a different colored leash when he was instructed to get ‘the other one.’
While they’ve made an effort to speak our language to the best of their ability, have you ever considered learning to speak theirs?
When we think of a dog ‘speaking’ we imagine all the different barks and howls they’re capable of making, such as barking at the doorbell, whining to be let out, and of course, if you’re lucky enough, the police-siren sound they make when a first responder speeds by.
But their communication skills go well beyond their vocal cords. There’s a litany of clues and cues dogs make to their owners through body movement, position and behavior and often, they mean the opposite of what we think. Paying attention to what they’re saying will strengthen your shared bond and make your dog feel better understood.
But don’t feel too badly, sometimes dogs even have trouble understanding one another. Here is some of the most common body language found in dog parks everywhere.
A Happy Dog
A relaxed, happy pup will have a gentle fluid gait, as though he’s ‘prancing along’ with his owner. His mouth might be slightly open and his jaw will be slack. If it’s a particularly warm day, or you’ve just taken him for a long run, his tongue might be hanging to one side. When he sees another dog, he might perk up a bit in anticipation of playing with a new friend.
A Playful Dog
When they meet one another, dogs tend to mimic body language. In the best of circumstances, they will lick noses, circle each other to get a good sniff, and wag their tails. Once they’ve been properly introduced, they will freeze slightly, put their paws out and bow. This is the signal that it’s time to play.
Trying To Appease
If one is seeking to appease the other, you might witness them lick the other’s muzzle or ears excessively, blink several times, lower their head and ears, or even expose their teeth as if smiling.
This is usually a non-confrontational exchange, but sometimes, when the dog is more fearful or wanting to submit to the other passively, they may lie down and roll over. If the other dog has been well socialized, they will reciprocate the signals and appease in return.
If rolling over isn’t enough to alleviate the situation, the concerned dog will yawn, sniff, scratch, or sneeze to hide what they’re really feeling, in hopes of refocusing attention away from them and onto the things they’re doing.
In any situation where a dog is feeling unsafe, he might turn to his owner to seek attention. Sometimes a big yawn is your dog is telling you he’s tuckered out, but it can also signal that his stress level is unusually high.
Facial expressions can include curved eyebrows, a tense jaw, panting, and twitching whiskers. His ears might be back and close to his head, and his tail may be tucked between his legs. A shaking dog will often seek out a hug from his owner or show the whites of his eyes. A dog that whines and leans into you is probably saying it’s time to go.
When a dog is pushed past his comfort level and switches to the defensive, there are still actions he can take to deescalate the situation before engaging the perceived danger.
When a dog’s ‘hair goes up on the back of its neck’ it’s called piloerection. This makes the dog look bigger than it actually is and also releases odor from the glands contained in the dog’s hair follicles.
He’ll lean forward into the danger, tense his mouth and might let out a low growl. A quick bark will serve the purpose of a vocal warning and will also remind the foe that he has a mouth full of sharp, strong teeth.
If a quick nip or air snap doesn’t do the trick, he might decide it’s time to take aggressive action. Biting and holding onto the dogs scruff will give your dog the advantage, as it will protect their own neck from being latched onto.
Hopefully this is all that’s needed to reestablish a social balance and end the hostility. Dogs rarely continue fighting once they feel a boundary has been put back in place. A safe dog is a happy dog.
Ideally, we want our dogs to be happy, relaxed companions, and most of the time that’s exactly what they are. When we’re alone with our dog, and the complexity of interacting with others at the dog park is no longer an issue, they will generally communicate through the wagging of their tail.
A tail wagging around like a helicopter from a wiggling bottom means everything is A-OK. They might be anticipating a treat, physical attention, or a good old fashioned game of fetch.
A dog will wag his tail more to the right when they see someone they like, whereas an unfamiliar person will get a tail wag more to the left. Dogs tire out well before their tails do. Even when they’re exhausted and lying on the ground, they will still assure you things are good by swishing that tail back and forth.
The more you can get to know your dog, the happier life will be for both of you. Even when they exercise free will and decide which commands they’ll be obeying that day, a dog will never stop trying to learn and understand what you’re saying. All they want is to make you happy.
While every dog is different, this basic behavior should have you and your pup well on the way to deeper conversations about the meaning of life. Or at least what’s being served for dinner that night.
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