Dogs have such unique personalities and such an integral role in family life that we often feel frustrated by the communication barrier between our species. Dogs do communicate, though through body language rather than speech, and we might come closer to an understanding if we pay attention to that body language.
Canine communication is not difficult to decipher once you know what you are looking for. A dog’s body language incorporates several key aspects of their anatomy to send a clear message both to other dogs as well as to human beings.
Baseline Posture for a Dog’s Body Language
According to the Humane Society, the easiest way to understand a dog’s body language is to first recognize its baseline posture. This is the way the dog’s eyes, ears, mouth, body and tail appear when he is relaxed and stress-free.
His head is high (above the withers), his eyes are clear and round, his ears are pricked but not tilted forward, his tail is down (but not tucked) and his body is relaxed. In the baseline posture, the dog’s mouth is probably open with his flews hanging down on either side of his bottom teeth.
It is when this baseline posture changes that a dog’s body language gets interesting.
The Anxious & Submissive Dog
Some dogs, when they meet a new person or animal, immediately show their submissiveness and might show visible signs of anxiety. Their mouths produce significant drool, they bow their heads submissively, and their tails lower – often between their legs. This dog’s body language is communicating that he poses no threat to anyone.
When anxious and submissive, dogs will frequently emit a low moaning or mewling sound, and their backs will be slightly concave with the back end higher than the front end. He might wag his tail tentatively, again to show he means no harm and that he wishes to be friends.
The Aggressive Dog
For a number of reasons, a dog’s body language might communicate aggression, such as in a threatening situation when he feels the need to protect himself or his family (pack). According to Paws Across America, the aggressive body language includes ears either forward or flat against the head, eyes narrowed, and tail extended straight behind the dog.
In this posture, the dog’s hackles (hair along the spine) might stand on end, and he might snap his jaws. Although most dogs stand upright in an attempt to gain height in this mood, he might also lower his shoulders slightly like a cat preparing to pounce.
Aggression differs from a predatory stance in a dog’s body language. If a dog is planning to sneak up on prey or to launch an attack, his stance is generally lower and he will usually close his mouth.
The Excited & Happy Dog
A dog’s body language when he is excited or happy is much different from the postures described above. In this mood, the dog will open his mouth – often letting his tongue hang out – with his tail wagging vigorously back and forth.
Happy dogs will often repeatedly lower their front ends and stick their tails in the air (almost like a mock bow), though they will also dance around excitedly, sometimes in circles. Their eyes will be wide and their ears pricked forward.
The Frightened Dog
A dog’s body language when he is frightened is different from when he is only showing anxiety and submission. When fearful, he will usually crouch on all four legs, sometimes lowering himself all the way to the ground. He might make whimpering or yelping sounds from his mouth.
His ears will pin back against his head, and his tail will tuck between his legs. He will not make eye contact either with humans or other animals, and he might shiver uncontrollably.
Why is a Dog’s Body Language Important?
The more you understand about your dog’s body language, the better you will be able to care for him. When he is frightened, for example, you can take steps to comfort him or to remove the object of fear.
Understanding canine communication can also save your life. Knowing the difference between a playful stance and an aggressive or predatory posture will inform how you handle the situation. These key differences can make owning a dog much easier.
Paws Across America