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Going Beyond Words: Understanding Your Dog’s Mood Through Body Language

Veterinarian Reviewed by Dr. Janice Huntingford, DVM on October 8, 2018
Posted in Behavior Management

At one point or another, every pet owner has wished that their four-legged furry friends could talk. However, we don’t need our animals to talk to get to know them. Whether you’re concerned that your dog is feeling under the weather or you’re simply wanting to gain a better understanding of the things that make them happy, it is possible to read your dog’s body language to comprehend their feelings.

Dogs are naturally expressive animals, and over time, domesticated breeds have developed signals that humans can easily interpret. Learning how to read your dog’s body language can help you respond more effectively to your pet’s wants and needs.

While each dog communicates in a slightly different way, there are few rules of thumbs that you can keep in mind while observing your furry friend’s behavior.

Tips on reading body language

Dogs communicate with people and each other through a complex series of vocalizations—like barks, whines and growls—as well as body language. If you’re hoping to gain a better understanding of the way that your dog communicates with its body language, here are just a few things to keep in mind:

  • Hair plays a role: When people are cold, shocked or scared, they may experience goosebumps. Dogs experience a similar phenomenon—when dogs are stressed or are hoping to make themselves look larger than they are, they may raise their hair follicles, resulting in the hair standing on edge. This is called ‘raising their hackles,’ and is usually a sign of aggression or distress.
  • Watch the eyes: When dogs are distressed, their eyes may appear rounder than they usually do. Additionally, the direction of a dog’s gaze often says a lot about its mood. If a dog is looking away, into a corner or off into the distance, the dog may be distressed. When dogs are relaxed and comfortable, they’re more likely to squint, resulting in an almond-shaped eye.
  • Panting is significant: Dogs pant to relieve heat and cool themselves down. Dogs also pant as a sign of distress. It’s a common misconception that dogs aren’t capable of sweating, as well—dogs do sweat, through their paw pads. If your dog is leaving wet paw prints around the home, it could be a sign of extreme distress. If your dog is stressed, a stress-relieving oil may help calm them down.

Poses and what they mean

There are a number of common poses that your dog may assume in certain situations. These poses are nearly universal in meaning; if you see your dog performing any of these poses, it’s relatively easy to posit what they’re trying to communicate with you.

  • Approachable and relaxed: This is a dog’s most common stance. The dog will stand upright on all fours, with its mouth slightly ajar. The dog may happily pant, if it’s warm outside. The tail will be relaxed, and the ears will be upright. The dog will hold its head high and examine its surroundings regularly.
  • On the alert: Dogs assume this stance when they’re curious. Dogs are most likely to assume an alert stance when they’re introduced to new surroundings or are meeting new people or animals. A rigid and horizontal tail, forward ears, closed mouth and forward-leaning stance indicate an alert pose.
  • Dominant aggression: A dominant aggressive stance typically occurs when dogs meet another dog or another, smaller animal. Some dogs may assume a dominant aggressive stance when meeting new people, as well. A raised, rigid tail coupled with a slight curling of the lips and raised hackles indicates an aggressive stance.
  • Fearful aggression: This stance indicates that the dog is both submissive and distressed. Dogs will lower the front half of their body, place their tail between their legs and curl their lips when they assume a fearful aggressive stance. Additionally, dogs will typically snarl and growl when they assume a fearful aggressive stance.
  • Playfulness: When dogs assume a playful stance, they usually have their ears upright, their tail wagging and their mouth wide open. They may pant and vocalize happily. Dogs also may dilate their pupils when they’re in a playful mood.

Learning how to communicate with your pooch can provide you with the insight necessary to meet their needs more effectively. Dogs are complex, emotional animals that need lots of care and attention. Understanding their efforts to communicate with you can go a long way toward improving your relationship with your dog and can allow you to provide them with the attention, medications and supplements they need to live healthy, long lives.

Read also: How to Help Your Dog Overcome Its Separation Anxiety

Our Expert

Dr. Janice Huntingford
Janice Huntingford, DVM, has been in veterinary practice for over 30 years and has founded two veterinary clinics since receiving her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph. She has studied extensively in both conventional and holistic modalities. Ask Dr. Jan

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