Have you ever looked at your dog and thought, “I wonder what he’s thinking…”? I know I have! Unfortunately, modern science has not yet found a way to read a dog’s mind or developed a collar that talks for the dog like the ones worn by the dogs in Disney’s animated film Up.
However, we know enough to be able to determine how a dog feels. Canine body language is a beautifully intricate form of communication that, when studied and defined, becomes a means of translation to allow us, as humans, to know our dogs better.
Dogs are very visual animals and recognize the smallest changes in body posture and demeanor. As a dog trainer, it is crucial that I, too, can recognize this myriad of physical changes and determine which are associated with the dog’s emotional state and which are used in deliberate communication. As a dog owner, understanding canine body language helps me recognize when my dog is unsure, stressed or fearful. If I know how my dog feels I can then adjust my own response to improve my dog’s emotional state by removing stressful stimuli, taking him out of a stressful environment or using conditioning methods to increase his confidence.
In this blog post I will attempt to give a clear picture of how each component of a dog’s body posture hints to his emotional state. I would like to emphasize that a complete picture of a dog’s emotional state can only be determined when one takes into account the entire animal.
Eyes – The eyes truly can be windows into the soul. A dog’s emotional state is inevitably reflected in his eyes. “Soft eyes” are calm, not too wide and look in the direction the nose is pointed. These are the eyes of a comfortable dog. “Hard eyes” are tight, stiff, possibly opened slightly too wide and may not look in the direction the nose is pointing. These are the eyes of a dog under stress. “Whale eye” is a term which describes a dog’s eye that is open too wide and is not looking in the direction the nose is pointing so that the whites show around the edge of the eye. Whale eye is a clear sign of significant stress and is a common precursor to a growl, snap and/or bite.
Ears – When ears are loose and moving easily this is usually indicative of a calm, happy dog. A dog can have alert ears when simply interested in something or when preparing to react aggressively so if the ears are forward and alert we must take into account the rest of the dog’s body. Ears that are pulled back are a sign of stress and discomfort. Ear cropping is a practice that is thankfully becoming less common and is no longer required in all conformation showing for certain breeds. If ears are cropped it can severely limit our ability as observers of canine body language. The same is true for tail docking, a still-common practice for many breeds including schnauzers, boxers, and rottweilers. By removing parts of a dog’s body for cosmetic reasons we remove communication tools that dogs naturally possess.
Mouth – The corners of a dog’s mouth is called the commissure. The commissure is the main point of interest when discussing canine body language. When the commissure is relaxed, whether the mouth is open or closed, this is a good indication that the dog is calm and comfortable. If the commissure is pulled backward tightly this is called a “fear grimace” and speaks of a dog that is fearful and uncomfortable,
however, if the commissure is tight and pulled forward into a “pursed” position one may assume that the dog is highly uncomfortable and preparing to growl, snap or bite. The lip may also be raised, showing teeth in a snarl.
Body – One of the most obvious signals a dog can give of his emotional state is his body posture. Even weight distribution generally means that a dog is calm. If a dog’s weight is shifted backward onto his hind end he may be insecure, stressed or fearful and preparing to run away from the stressor. A fearful dog usually combines a backward shift in weight with a crouched posture. If his weight is forward he may be aroused, excited or preparing an aggressive reaction. This is commonly accompanied by raised hackles (hair standing up along a dog’s back) although having raised hackles should not be seen as a definitive indication of aggression. Many dogs raise their hackles during play. A “play bow” is a clear communication from a dog that he wants to play. In a play bow the dog lowers the front of his body while keeping his hind-end raised.Tail – The set of a dog’s tail can speak volumes of a dog’s emotional state. A loosely wagging or relaxed tail tells of a calm, happy, relaxed dog. If the tail is erect and stiff this could indicate a state of arousal, excitement or imminent aggression even if the tail is wagging slightly. When a dog tucks its tail under its belly it is clear that the dog is anxious and/or fearful.
Having identified several different elements of canine body language and what they tell us about the dog’s emotional state, it’s time to put them together to form a complete picture. Following are some photos of dogs in various emotional states. Challenge yourself to identify the individual elements which contribute to your overall opinion of how each dog is feeling. Then go try it with your own dog!