Dogs can talk—they don’t use human words, but they can tell us how they feel and what they’re thinking with their tails, head, posture, and ears. Since dogs have done us a great kindness by learning some of our language (sit, stay, come, and walkies!), it’s only fair that we learn dog language. Every ear twitch, wag, and vocalization is a “word,” but words need to be strung together to interpret their meaning. Dog body signals are meant to be read together, even when they seem to contradict each other. Here’s how you can read your dog’s body language:
DOG EAR LANGUAGE
For most dogs, ear expressions are an obvious way to convey their feelings. (However, some dogs, like Beagles, have what’s called a “dead ear” that simply flops at the side of their heads. No information to be gained there.)
In general, ears raised above the normal level signal alertness (“What’s that? Someone unwrapping cheese?”).
The higher the ears, the more confident—and even dominant—the dog’s attitude. Ears raised and pulled forward may mean, “I’m on guard, step away please.”
Aggression or Fear
In an aggressive dog, the ears may be forward or back, but will generally lie close to the head. Flattened out ears suggest that the dog is afraid of something (“Get that vacuum cleaner out of here!”).
Ears raised and laid back loosely signal a friendlier attitude. When a dog drops his ears to their lowest position, it could signal complete relaxation in some dogs and nervousness in others.
When ears flick from one position to another, the dog hasn’t quite made up his mind (“I don’t know if that drone is a toy or a weapon; I can’t decide. Help!”).
DOG TAIL SIGNS
Tail language is a complex matter. While most dogs have tails suitable for communication, a few, like Pembroke Welsh Corgis and Pugs, are a little shortchanged. This can cause problems for these breeds in dog-to-dog communication because it’s harder for other dogs to read their intentions.
A happy, relaxed dog will hold his tail at a natural angle and wag it, sometimes in a circular fashion. Most dogs with natural tails wag them when feeling friendly, but it’s not a guarantee.
A potentially aggressive dog holds his tail high and wags it more stiffly. If the tail is held straight out, it indicates the dog is about to chase something, possibly you. But one can never be sure.
Some friendly dogs never wag their tails, and some dogs follow a brisk wag with an attack. Once again, unless you know what a particular dog’s normal tail position is, you cannot be sure what is going on in his mind. And even if you do know, you could be in for a surprise.
DOG FACIAL EXPRESSIONS
Dogs can show a wide a variety of facial expressions, from surprise to joy to sorrow.
Cocking the head is anticipatory. He’s asking, “What’s next?” This signal is even stronger if accompanied by a raised forepaw. Usually the mouth will be closed.
If a dog stares straight at you, especially an unfamiliar dog, it can mean he is feeling aggressive. Aggressive dogs may narrow their eyes to a slit. Whisker twitching suggests tension. Air snapping is a stern, nervous, warning. If the lips are pulled up and back, and accompanied by a growl or snarl, it’s a sign you should step out of the way fast; he’s about to bite.
A frightened or worried dog may turn his eyes away, showing what is called a “whale eye,” which is when the whites of the eye are made visible as half-moons. A furrowed brow signifies worry and tension. If you have a Shar-Pei or Bloodhound, however, you will never notice. Yawning can be a sign of fear or excitement, or he may just be tired.
Secure, friendly pets return their owner’s fond gaze in a frank, loving, and confident way (something they will not do with other dogs). Reading the eyes of your dog is a subtle art, but much can be learned by an observant owner. Blinking and lip-licking signal something like, “I love you and I hope you’re not mad at me for anything.”
Happy dogs generally keep their mouths closed or only slightly open; a very wide-open mouth and lolling dog may mean your pooch is totally relaxed and happy. Some dogs can produce a weird “grin” that looks like a horrific attack is about to take place, but no, the dog is merely being submissive and friendly. (It occurs in both dog–dog and dog–human encounters.) There may be some fear involved in this expression, however, so it’s not always safe to assume that an unfamiliar dog is happy to see you.
READING DOG POSTURES
Reading your dog’s posture has some great advantages: You don’t have to get too close to read his expression and you don’t have to figure out which type of tail wag he’s producing.
Aggressive dogs may stand very straight and hold their tails straight out.
Frightened dogs “scrunch” with their heads down and as they try to appear small. If a dog is displaying signs of aggression but is slowly backing away, he is a fearful dog. Dogs are perfectly capable of bluffing.
Dogs desiring dominance will often place their chins, leg, or whole body across the neck of another dog, or may assume a “mating posture.”
Submissive dogs hold their heads down, with the tail low and perhaps tucked. They may sniff at the ground to show that they are not interested in confronting you, or they may try to lick you.
Anxious dogs may behave in a similar way, but will hold the ears partly back, or in extreme conditions, pinned closely to the head. A dog in extreme submission will roll over on his back and may even urinate.
Most of the time, a relaxed-looking dog is an approachable dog. Calm and confident dogs stand squarely on all four feet.
Dogs who are ready for fun may play-bow and waggle their butts to entice you to join the game. They may also bark.
The language of dogs will always be only a second language for people. You may study it for years and even become fairly fluent, but remember that you are not a native speaker. New words and phrases will continue to surprise you.