Dogs have a language of their own that enables them to communicate their emotional state and intentions to their owners, and others around them. Most of their communication methods will be displayed through their body language, and more specifically, their facial expressions and the posture of their body. Dogs also use sounds and signals, and most will be familiar with these already, such as growling and barking when spooked, angry or edgy. But for understanding their body language, here are a few tips and pointers to interpret how a dog may be trying to communicate their feelings to you:
Recognizing when a dog is feeling relaxed and can be approached:
A dog that is feeling relaxed and not threatened by anyone or anything within the vicinity, will usually have their ears up, their head high, their mouth slightly open with their tongue exposed, their tail down and very relaxed, and if standing, will often display a loose stance with their paws flat on the ground. This should indicate that it’s okay to approach the dog, but always exercise caution if you are not familiar with the dog and their temperament.
How an alert and interested dog might look:
When a dog comes across something or someone that they are not sure about, they will often display this stance: their ears will almost certainly be pointing forward, their eyes will be wide while their mouth is closed, their tail may move slightly from side to side, and they will stand tall on their toes to lean forward. The dog is still trying to determine whether what it has seen is a threat or not, and depending on the dog in question, you may or may not be able to approach them.
A dominant and aggressive dog’s body language:
The signals a dog gives off when in an aggressive and dominant state are easy for most of us to recognize. In most cases their lips will be curled in a snarl with their teeth showing, and they will have a stiff legged stance. Their tail will often be raised and bristling, as may their hackles, and their forehead may show vertical wrinkles. A dog in this state should not be approached unless you are a qualified training professional with plenty of experience of handling dogs in this state.
How an aggressive but fearful dog may look:
Some dogs may show aggression but still be fearful, meaning that they are frightened but not entirely submissive and may attack if pushed or cornered. The following body signals are usually shown when the object of the dog’s fear is in front of them. Their hackles will probably be raised and their pupils may be dilated. Their body will be lowered to the ground with their tail tucked in between their legs, and their lips slightly curled to reveal a semi-snarl.
Knowing when a dog is stressed or in distress:
If a dog is feeling stressed out by the situation it has found itself in, or the environment in which it is in, it will very likely have a lowered body stance with its’ tail down, it’s pupils will be dilated, and it will be panting rapidly. You may be able to help the dog de-stress, depending on your relationship with the animal.
Recognizing when a dog is in extreme fear:
Extreme fear often forces dogs to display submissive behaviour, such as lying on their back to expose their stomach and throat, and with their tail tucked up. Very frightened dogs may also pee a little through fear and will inevitably turn their head away from the object of their fear, to avoid confrontation. A dog this fearful is basically communicating that they accept their lower status and that they want to avoid a fight at all costs.
Knowing when a dog is feeling playful:
A playful state is widely recognized by most, and the dog will often lower their front end and raise their rear, before darting off in various directions at the speed of light! Their ears and tail will be up, their pupils will be dilated, and their mouth may be open to expose their tongue. This behaviour may be accompanied by excited barking or playful attacks and retreats.
To understand more about the body language of dogs, consult with a professional dog handler or trainer.