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Understanding Dog Body Language

dog outside crouched down displaying playful body language

Photo credit: Mary Swift  © 123RF.com

Wouldn’t it be nice if dogs could speak “people language?”

Our doggie friends seem to understand a few words of what we’re saying, and respond in kind with wagging tails, stares, barks, grunts, whines, and even growls. Over the years, in fact, dogs have become extremely adept at using vocalizations and body movements – tail movements, ear and eye positions, facial expressions, and body positions – to let us know what they want and how they feel.  

Besides meeting our dogs’ needs, picking up on these cues really helps us create strong and meaningful dog-human relationships. And learning how to “speak dog” can help us avoid relationship-straining behavioral issues down the line (which are often why dogs get returned to shelters). Reading dogs’ behavioral cues can also come in handy in multi-pet households and at dog parks and other canine-friendly environments – it’s much easier to prevent a dog fight than break one up.

Ready to become fluent in dog? Let’s start with the eyes…

Why Do Dogs Stare at You?

As any dog owner can attest, that adorable, kind-of sad, slightly coy stare affectionately known as “puppy dog eyes” can really tug at your heartstrings. Not only is it outrageously cute, it can be kind of confusing! What is the meaning behind that stare? Is your pup trying to be sweet and lovable? Or is he sad or upset? 

Recent research has shed some light on this common facial expression. It turns out that “puppy dog eyes” could be your dog’s way of trying to connect with you on a deeper level. Interestingly, this distinctive stare is relatively new, at least evolutionally speaking.

You see, 30,000 years ago, when all dogs were wild, they never had the ability to move or lift the area above their eyes (the “eyebrow” area, if you will…). As certain breeds began to be domesticated, their facial anatomy slowly started changing so that the eyebrows became more mobile.

Why? Well, scientists believe that the eyebrow-raising motion associated with “puppy dog eyes” triggers a strong response in humans.

First, this unique stare makes a dog’s eyes appear more infant-like. (And dogs aren’t stupid—after all, who can resist a baby?) Second, it mimics the eye movements that humans make when they are sad or upset. As a result, people tend to have a strong desire to nurture their pups and give them love and attention, the way they would a baby.

So the next time your dog is staring you down with those pathetic-looking eyes, go ahead and give him some love—or perhaps a healthy freeze-dried treat! Chances are, that’s what he is asking for.

When does a stare mean something else? While most of the time, your dog stares at you because he wants a treat, belly rub, or some other kind of reward, staring can also be a sign of impending aggression or assertiveness. If your dog feels threatened, he can interpret direct eye contact as a challenge. Look for additional clues that your dog feels threatened or fearful (see below), and avoid eye contact during these times.

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How Else Do Dogs Communicate?

While a dog’s eyes can express a lot about what is on his mind, they are often only part of the story. To fully understand his emotional state or what he’s trying to tell you, you have to look at his entire body, as well as his environment.

It’s common for people to misread the meaning of a dog’s communication. For instance, a wagging tail does not always mean a dog is friendly or happy. A ferocious-sounding bark may actually be playful. The dog’s surroundings should help clue you in, at least partially, to how he feels.  

Dog behaviors can essentially be grouped into four categories:

  • Happy/relaxed behaviors – what we hope to see most of the time with our pups.
  • Fearful/anxious behaviors –often triggered by separation, grief, new homes, etc.
  • Assertive/aggressive behaviors – displays of dominance or signs of impending attack
  • Diffusive behaviors – non-verbal communications like tail tucking, frequent yawning, licking the lips or nose, and averting the eyes. Dogs engage in diffuse behaviors in order to avoid conflict resulting from fearful or aggressive behaviors, and to return to a happy/relaxed state.

Let’s take a look at each emotion and the ways dogs express it:

Fear / Anxiety

Dogs, like people, can get stressed. One of my dogs just seemed to know when it was time to go to the vet, and her anxiety went through the roof. She paced back and forth and always seems to have…digestive troubles, if you know what I mean…on the floor of the vet’s office when we arrived.

Other behaviors that indicate anxiousness include:

  • Slow tail wag but avoiding eye contact
  • Desperate-sounding barks
  • Whining
  • Pacing/circling

Anxious dogs may display the same behaviors that fearful dogs do. Dogs typically have whole-body reactions when they are afraid of something. Some cues that your dog is scared and/or anxious include:

  • Licking of lips
  • Yawning (frequently, when they are not tired)
  • Cowering
  • Tucking tail between legs
  • Shaking/trembling
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Whimpering
  • Unwillingness to take a treat or drink water when offered, even when they are hot or hungry

You need to be careful around fearful dogs, as the fear can escalate into aggression if the threat persists and they feel the need to defend themselves. It’s important that you communicate back to a fearful dog that you are not a threat – avoid eye contact, don’t approach them, even turn away from them. Speaking of aggression, here’s what to look out for…

Aggression

All dogs can get aggressive, even normally sweet, docile pups. It’s a perfectly natural reaction to a perceived threat, particularly if that “threat” is about to take away a possession (think: food, a bone, or a treat).

The earliest, and most common, sign of aggression is intense eye contact.  Other signs are:

  • Lowering the head and flattening the ears
  • Hair along the back standing up (hackles)
  • Stiffening of body and shifting body weight to the front 
  • Growling/snarling
  • Tense mouth/curled lips
  • Wrinkled nose
  • Snapping
  • Biting

Clearly, it’s best to avoid a dog if he is showing any of these aggressive behaviors. To avoid being bitten by an aggressive dog, never stare or yell, and don’t grab the dog by the collar (the number one way to get bitten).  The aggression will pass—as soon as the dog realizes you pose no danger to him or his bone or toy!

Happy/content

Happy dogs are the best. A content dog usually has a relaxed body, soft eyes, and a slightly open mouth that almost appears to be smiling. Often their tongue is hanging out of their mouth in the relaxed state.  A happy dog will voluntarily enter your personal space to try to get you to engage with them.  Bowing down on the front legs, also called a play bow, is often an invitation to play.  The tail is usually wagging too, in a carefree, swishing, back-and-forth motion.

Your Dog’s Communication Mirrors Yours

Finally, it’s important to note that dogs are highly attuned animals, and often times their emotions mirror those of their master.

The way your pooch acts may have a lot to do with what he is witnessing in you. When you’re calm, he’ll much more likely be relaxed and content. But if you’re running around the house crazed because you are late for an important appointment, your dog may start displaying anxiety behaviors. This is just another way your furry family member stays connected with, and to, you. 

Dogs are amazing creatures, indeed. The way dog communication (and dogs in general) have evolved over millennia just goes to show they truly are—and will always be—man’s best friend.

This blog has been reviewed and approved by Veterinarian Emily Wilkinson, D.V.M.

References

  • Arnold C. “Puppy dog eyes” evolved so dogs could communicate with us. NationalGeographic.com, June 17, 2019 at
  • Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine Center for Shelter Dogs. Dog Communication and Body Language. Centerforshelterdogs.tufts.edu, last accessed Dec. 8, 2019.
  • Kaminski J, et al. Evolution of facial muscle anatomy in dogs. PNAS. 2019 Jul 16;116(29):14677-81.
  • Shaw J, Martin D. Canine and Feline Behavior for Veterinary Technicians and Nurses. Wiley Blackwell; 2014
  • Sheldon C, Sonsthagen T, Topel J. Animal Restraint for Veterinary Professionals. 2nd ed. Elsevier 2016.
  • Siniscalchi, Marcello et al. “Communication in Dogs.” Animals : an open access journal from MDPI vol. 8,8 131. 31 Jul. 2018, doi:10.3390/ani8080131

© 2019 Stephen Sinatra, MD. All rights reserved.

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