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The Ultimate Guide to Dog Body Language (What Did You Say?)

We have all wanted our dogs to talk to us at one time or another. After all, such communication would remove a lot of the guesswork that comes with canine ownership. However, your pooch does talk to you through his body language. Here’s how to see what he’s telling you.

Dogs Talk – But What Do They Say?

The notion that dogs don’t talk to you is a bit of a myth. Sure, they don’t have the ability to form words and discuss the plot of your favorite TV show, although some scientists seem to be working on rectifying this. But that doesn’t mean they are muted animals that are incapable of letting you know what’s happening in their world.

Dogs can communicate through all sorts of physical means, from producing sounds with their vocal cords to exhibiting specific behaviors and movements with their bodies. And even novice dog owners can pick up on the fact that their four-legged friend has something to say, even if they can’t articulate it in human terms.

Yet therein lies the rub. We may know that our dogs may be trying to tell us something, but we may not have a clue as to what they actually may be trying to tell us. If you aren’t careful, this could lead you to feel frustrated in certain situations, particularly if your pooch isn’t acting the way you want him to act.

Part of this frustration may come from an assumption that dogs communicate from a space similar to where we communicate. But this is an incorrect assumption, and that’s not just because we can say words and they can’t. Rather, the way dogs tend to communicate is quite literally the nature of the beast.

We humans tend to communicate through experiences dictated by learned experience, environment, and emotion. Dogs, on the other hand, primarily communicate on an instinctual level; one that has its roots back in ancient times when they roamed the earth as wild beasts.

This makes sense when you think about things. After all, wild dogs didn’t co-habituate within a human environment; as such, a lot of their canine-driven language stems from their abilities to communicate with other dogs. They essentially brought this set of “language” skills with them when they started to become domesticated.

Now, your dogs won’t totally be oblivious to what you’re saying to them – studies show they’ve picked up on a few words over generations. But because a dog’s bodily communications are so instinctual, you should prepare yourself to talk down to their “level.” Doing so will make your owner/dog bond much more dynamic.

Language: It’s a Two-Way Street

It could be very easy just to assume that your dog understands the intent of everything that comes out of your mouth, simply because he's your loveable buddy that seems to hang on every word. However, as this video shows, it's important to realize how critical being sensitive to the nature of dog language is, since it comes from a uniquely canine place.

How Does Your Dog Use His Body to Communicate?

Even though your dog can’t speak, he is nonetheless a very communicative beast. Your dog uses his entire body to tell you about his wants and needs. He’ll even be able to clue you in on the precise mood he’s in at any given time – it’s up to you to decipher these clues.

A dog’s tail, ears, eyes, paws and body positioning are all integral parts to how your dog talks to you through his frame. However, the lines of communication can easily be blurred if you don’t recognize what these movements represent. This breach in “speech” between dog and owner is more prescient than you may think.

The Tale of the Tail

Perhaps no form of body communication is riper for misinterpretation than his tail. Even raw rookies in the dog ownership game know that a dog’s tail can be a terrific vessel for canine communication. However, the knowledge of tail-based communication can easily be reduced to the thought of a wagging tail equating to a happy dog.

Yet even that concept is incorrect, which is something that you may not realize until you get growled or even nipped at by a tail-wagging doggie. Yes, a dog with an eagerly wagging tail can indicate that he is in a happy place. However, there is a few metrics that go beyond the movement that you must be made aware.

Position plays a key role in what your dog may be feeling, even when your pooch’s tale is in motion. If your dog is indeed happy and relaxed, you can expect his tail to move in a sweeping side-to-side motion in a neutral position. In this case, his tail will not be rested too high or too low.

If your dog is overcome with joyful emotion – such as that magic moment when you get home from work – you may see the tail darting back and forth with great if not haphazardly paced exuberance. You may even get the chance to see his butt wiggle or get treated to a full body wag, especially if your pooch has a stubby tail.

Again, you’ll see an outrageously happy dog’s tail wagging in a neutral position. This indicates that above all else, he’s happy and relaxed, which is a good thing. If your pooch has a naturally curled tail like a pug, you may even see his tail straightened out – the canine equivalent of “letting your hair down,” if you will.

If you see a wagging tail set up high or low, your pooch will be giving you a different message – one that doesn’t equate to happiness. When a dog’s tail is raised, he’s signaling that he’s on guard and prepared to confront whatever caught their eye. If the tail arches over the back, it could mean he’s ready to throw down in an act of aggression.

Conversely, if a dog’s tail moves into a lower position, it could be an indicator of submission. Just how low your dog’s tail goes will give you a clue as to how he’s feeling. If it looks like it’s practically stuck to his hindquarters, it’s a signal that he’s afraid. If there’s a slightly elevated, droopy wag involved, it could be a sigh of anxiousness.

Sometimes, you may notice that your dog’s tail abruptly freezes and stiffens up. This is an indication that he wants to divert a threat in a non-aggressive manner. This may be a common reaction when strangers try to pet your dog – he doesn’t want to attack, but he’d prefer to be left alone.

Of course, there is a bit of a breed variance when it comes to tail wagging and position. Breeds that have naturally high-set tails like chow chows or breeds with naturally low-set tails like whippets may make interpreting his tail movement a little trickier. To that end, it's important you be in tune with your dog's personality to make smart judgments.

Watching the Tail in Action

Because tail positioning could provide such a hefty clue regarding dog behavior, it’s important to know precisely what you’re looking for as opposed to just mentally visualizing what it may look like. This video will help you eliminate any guesswork you may have about what the appendage will look like in certain situations.

Lending an Ear to the Communication Game

Ears are an essential tool for canine communication. They are also arguably the one part of a dog's body that is subject to the most breed-centric communication variance, since there is a lot of natural variance in a dog's ear shape. This variance will dictate how effective ear-based communication can be for the pooch.

Much as is the case with tails, understanding a dog’s ear position will be the prime mover behind figuring out what he’s trying to tell you. For instance, if your dog is feeling mellow and unthreatened, he’ll hold his ears in a natural state. If his ears are pulled back ever so slightly, he’s in a friendly mood and wants to engage.

Not surprisingly, raised and lowered ears are signs of somewhat extreme emotional-based behavior tendencies. If you see your dog’s ears stuck to the sides of his head or completely laid flat back, it’s a sure sign of submission or fear.

Raised ears may be a little trickier to interpret. Your dog will raise his ears whenever he’s alert or if he’s feeling aggressive. He’ll also tend to direct his ears toward whatever is the impetus of his behavior. It’s up to you to assess the situation and environment to determine what behavior is driving the ear position.

As mentioned earlier, the effectiveness and obviousness of ear-based communication depend on the breed. In the case of a prick-eared dog like a German shepherd, it could be rather easy to read the ears. On the other hand, it may be tough to pick up on signals being left by a droopy-eared dog like a dachshund.

Why Tail Docking and Ear Cropping Are Horrible Ideas

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The importance of canine communication through a dog’s tail and ears indirectly shines a spotlight on two very controversial surgical procedures: tail docking and ear cropping. In the former procedure, a dog’s tail is either partially or fully removed, while the latter procedure removes the floppy part of a dog’s ears.

There seems to be practical origins for these procedures, particularly with tail docking. It’s believed the practice was meant to prevent injuries or disease contraction for working breeds. However, these days, it’s primarily done for cosmetic purposes.

However, it’s a horrendous practice that does nothing but hinders a dog’s ability to communicate, both with humans and with other dogs. Ears and tails are prime sources of non-verbal behavioral language, and altering either would be akin to cutting out a person’s tongue. Avoid either procedure at all costs.

The Eyes Have It

They say the eyes are the window to the soul. In the case of canines, their peepers can provide a clear glimpse into what’s going on in his brain. It may also be the one body language aspect that may be easy to decipher based on our own eye-driven behavioral clues.

For example, a dog that will stare you down may be doing so because he wants you to know he's the alpha dog and he's in control. Border collies are infamous for this trait, although it’s a necessary element to their personality because he traditionally uses his penetrating gaze to keep sheep and other animals in line.

Eye size will also give you an important clue to what’s happening in your pooch’s head. If your dog’s eyes appear to be normal in size, then he’s in a relaxed state of mind. If the peepers appear to be smaller, it’s a good sign that he’s feeling fearful or intimidated.

If a dog is feeling aggressive or stressed out, his eyes will appear larger. He may also give you a look that trainers call half-moon eye or whale eye, where he'll display a healthy chunk of the sclera (that is, the white portion of the eye) in his stare.

This particular stare doesn’t mean that he necessarily wants to go on the attack. But it does mean that he wants his space and that you should leave him alone for the time being. He could flash this look if you approach him while he’s gnawing on a bone, or the look may surface if your child is loving on him too excessively.

Looking at The Rest of the Body

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Sometimes, the way your pooch moves his body will provide you with precise clues as to how he’s feeling. This could be difficult to pick up on at times because, frankly, some of the movements look cute and we could get lost in the adorableness of it all. Yet it’s important to look beyond the “aww” factor to decipher what’s happening.

For instance, it may look quite endearing if you catch your pooch staring at you with one of his front paws raised. While it is admittedly cute, it could symbolize an acknowledgment of your dominance, or it could symbolize of canine insecurity. It could also signal that he's already thinking about where he's going to take the dog treat you're about to give him.

If your dog is walking or trotting around with a strong, majestic stride, it could symbolize that he’s feeling confident, if not a little too confident. Conversely, if he is moving with a slinky, crouched gait, it’s a sign that he’s feeling insecure about things. If he curls up or rolls on his back when you approach, he’s giving you clear signs of submission.

Sometimes, your dog will use his body to provide you with non-verbal cues that look similar to our own. For example, if you put your face close to his and he cranes his neck back or withdraws completely, he’s saying you’re too close for comfort. If he scratches you with his paw, he’s telling you that he wants some affection.

If you have children, it’s vital you take the time to help them interpret what these body-based behaviors mean and how they should react to them. Your kids simply may not be intuitive enough on their own to read these behaviors, especially the ones that say “I need my space.” Teaching them to recognize these signs will help strengthen the dog’s bond with them.

Dog Body Language and Illness

Observing your dog’s body language can also clue you into his health. Obviously, some of these signs aren’t hard to miss – if he has a sprained paw, for instance, he’s going to favor it like we would a sprained ankle. However, some of the body-based non-verbals can be a bit subtle.

For instance, if your dog tends to move with a sluggish gait or if he’s spending an unusually long time chilling in his corner, it could be signs of a host of illnesses, from hypothyroidism to heart disease. If you notice your dog’s squinting a bunch, he could have an eye infection.

If you detect any type of body language that doesn’t seem typical of normal canine communication, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian immediately. In this case, your dog’s body language could be telling you that he’s in a great deal of pain.

Putting Visuals to These Behaviors

It’s one thing to merely talk about how your dog uses his body to communicate. It’s an entirely different beast to see these forms of communication in action once you have a grasp of what they mean. This video does a solid job of showcasing some of the more common body language prompts along with what they represent.

A Word on Non-Verbal Verbalizations

Just because your dog can’t speak doesn’t mean he can’t use his voice. Indeed, your pooch can and will produce sounds to help you know what they’re feeling – or how you can help them out. While some of these sounds may grate on our nerves at time, you should remember the noises aren’t made in vain.

Obviously, the most common sound that emanates from a dog’s mouth is its bark. These short, sharp bursts of noise can convey a bevy of messages. Not surprisingly, the interpretation of the barks can be deciphered on their tone.

For instance, a high-pitched bark could indicate a welcome greeting or a call for attention along the lines of "I'm at your feet, so pet me already!" A frantic, lengthy bark could convey a message of distress, while deeply guttural, growly barks indicate a threat or aggression. It's up to you to determine the impetus of the sound.

If you do catch your dog growling at you or a family member, bear in mind that he’s doing so because he’s trying to exert dominance or alpha dog status, and not necessarily because he wants to attack you. If you allow him to get away with this behavior, he’ll assume he has a higher family hierarchy than you want him to have.

Because of this, it’s important that you take care of his growling tendencies during the all-important training stage. If you adopt an older dog that comes to your house with this tendency in place, it may behoove you to seek out some professional training.

Whining and whimpering can also be effective tools for canine communication. For example, if your dog is in pain, he may vocalize his discomfort. However, these particular sounds can also be prime elements for manipulation.

This is particularly the case if you get a dog in the puppy stage. If you start reacting to every bit of his whining with actions desired on his end, such as providing him with an extra cup of food or inviting him on the bed for slumber, he’ll learn that he cause use this communication to get his way. You’ll want to avoid this at all costs.

Harnessing the Wealth of Information

In some ways, learning to “speak” dog is like learning a new language. Even though some of these non-verbals will be easy to pick up on, there are subtleties and nuances that are going to take some time and patience to learn. This could lead to frustration if you’re not careful.

But it’s important that you remain patient and willing to communicate with your pooch on his level. While there’s little doubt that dogs would speak to you with words if they could, they’re doing the best they can with the tools that they have. In other words, you need to reach to them because they can only reach to you so far.

And as you learn the language of dog, it’s important that you do so with a loving, gentle hand along the way. Doing so will serve to strengthen the bond that you and your four-legged friend have, and it will make you a better owner. It will also end up making your dog a better pooch – at least, that’s how it will appear.

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 2 comments
Leigh - November 15, 2016

We should always be cautious and very observant of our dog’s body language so we’d know what they’re feeling or what they’re up to. Very helpful article!

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KD Mathews - January 20, 2017

Great post! Tons of great stuff regarding an often misunderstood topic. I still have to explain to folks constantly about “pouty faces” vs simple displays of appropriate submission!!

Can’t wait to read more here, love what Im seeing already!

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