Humans and dogs have been communicating, in one form or another, since dogs were wolves just hanging around the caveman’s campfire. Somehow these two very different creatures learned to understand each other. Today we are still able to understand our dogs when they give us a look, wag their tail, or bark. But how do we do it? How do we understand our dogs body language?
Dogs and humans are probably able to communicate because we are both very social species. Communication is important for both of us. Humans are great communicators. We not only talk, use our hands, and give facial expressions, but we have created reading and writing, computers, phones, and so many other ways to communicate with each other. We’re all about communication! Dogs and wolves that live in packs also require communication to survive. Wolves and dogs have to communicate with each other to hunt in packs. A mother canine communicates with her pups and raises them for weeks, teaching them what they need to learn. Young wolves and dogs commonly stay with the pack for months or years in the wild and develop a family structure, communicating with other members of the pack and understanding social roles.
So, when humans and dogs interact together, it’s not surprising that they would develop ways to communicate with each other.
Basics Forms of Dog Body Language
Most people recognize the basics of dog body language. A wagging tail usually means the dog is happy, for instance. People can recognize puppies at play. If you see a dog snarling and baring his teeth you know that’s a warning and you should back off. But dogs can also show more complex body language. Here are some things you can watch for in your dog:
If your dog is feeling happy and friendly he will have his head held high with his mouth relaxed. His ears will be up and interested. His tail will be down and may be wagging.
Playful or Excited
Your dog can show that he wants to play by being excited and happy. He may make a play bow. This is an invitation to another dog to play with him. He will lower his front end and bow with his tail up in the air and wagging. He may run in circles and bark. His ears will be up or slightly back. His hackles are smooth and down.
Alert or Interested
If your dog is alert and interested in what’s happening it means he hasn’t yet decided how he should behave. He could act this way when he’s meeting a new dog, for example. His ears will be up and his mouth closed. He will be standing up on his toes. His tail will be straight out. He’s ready for whatever may happen.
A dog that is fearful may lower his front end. His ears will be back. His nose may wrinkle and the corner of his mouth may be drawn back. The pupils of his eyes may be dilated. His hackles will be raised and his tail may be tucked in. You should be careful of a fearful dog because frightened dogs can become aggressive and possibly bite. To learn more about fearful dogs, check out our blog post titled “What Makes A Dog Fearful”.
An aggressive dog shows a confident posture. He stands tall and forward on his toes. His ears are forward and nose wrinkled. The corner of his mouth is forward. His hackles are up and his tail is up and stiff. This type of dog can be quite dangerous and can attack on a slit second. He may also growl or bark. He may wag his tail slowly but this is not the sign of a friendly dog.
A dog may show submission in two ways. He may show active submission by crouching or groveling. His ears are back and his forehead is smooth. He licks at the mouth of another dog. The corners of his mouth are back. Dogs like this may urinate or whine when another dog confronts them. His tail is down and his body is low to the ground. A dog may show passive submission by lying down on their back. They don’t make eye contact with the other dog. Their tail is tucked to them. This is the most submissive posture for a dog.
If your dog is feeling stressed he may show signs such as:
- Avoiding eye contact or freezing in place
- Dilated pupils
- Excessive blinking
- Excessive shedding
- Hiding behind you
- Lack of appetite
- Licking his lips
- Pacing or restlessness
- Becoming agitated or distracted
- Panting and salivating
- Requiring lots of commands when he usually responds to the first command
- Excessive sniffing
- Whining or lots of vocalizing
These are some basic forms of body language that you may see in a dog and what they usually indicate. It’s always important to consider context when you are interacting with a dog. You may expect a dog to be happy and friendly when he’s playing. Remember that a wagging tail doesn’t always indicate a friendly dog, especially in a tense situation. Fortunately, most people have good instincts when it comes to interacting with dogs. If you are ever in doubt about whether you should go near a dog, it’s usually best to be cautious.