Read Your Dog’s Body Language

By Brad Kloza

Read Your Dog’s Body Language

The movie Up features a dog with a collar that translates his thoughts into sentences like "I have just met you, and I love you!" Real dogs, however, speak more with body language than with barks.

"While there are fewer than a dozen types of barks, there are hundreds of different ear positions, tail positions, paw positions and more, which dogs use to communicate," says Lisa Mullinax, CPDT-KA (certified professional dog trainer-knowledge assessed), for 4Paws University Inc. "Body signals give dogs a much more elaborate language than vocalizations could."

Focusing on just a handful of body parts will give you a sense of the basics.

Direct stares often signal confrontation. Pay particular attention to the pupils, says Dr. E'Lise Christensen, a veterinarian and behaviorist at NYC Veterinary Specialists. "Pupils that are dilated indicate a dog that's not comfortable," she adds. Dogs with "soft eyes" that tend to avert their gaze are less likely to be confrontational.

Tight lips are often a sign of stress, but the difference between uncomfortable and threatening can be subtle. Another clue might be changes in breathing: Going from panting to closed-mouth breathing indicates a shift to discomfort, and the opposite indicates increased happiness. 

Two indicators of stress or anxiety are tongue flicking and yawning. "Yawning, when the dog is not relaxed or tired, is a common sign of stress or conflict," says Mullinax. "Sitting in the waiting room at the vet’s office, you may see a lot of yawning in the dogs there." 

Erect ears reveal a dog on high alert, while ears pulled back show a dog that is anxious or stressed. And that spot on the back of the neck behind the ears? This area, called the hackles, sometimes stands up in a spiky row.

"This is called 'piloerection' and is the exact same thing as goose bumps in humans," says Mullinax. "Since arousal and aggression are closely linked, hackles often get labeled as a sign of aggression, but it is not always the case. Just like we get goose bumps at a scary movie or hearing a really heartwarming story, dogs get goose bumps when emotions run high."

The tail is perhaps the most expressive part of your dog's body, but it might also be the hardest to read. A wagging tail is simply an indication of arousal, good or bad -- it doesn’t mean the dog is friendly. A high, tense wag could indicate a potential for aggression, while a low wag could indicate nervousness. A happy, relaxed dog usually has a tail that swings in circles or from side to side. On the other hand, "tail between the legs" is a cliche for a reason: It indicates a scared or stressed dog.

Reading Specific Canine Behavior
Aside from communicating with body parts, dogs also convey information through behavior and posture. For example, bowing forward on the front paws, known as a “play bow,” is a sign of a dog’s playful mood. A slightly different bow is a greeting bow, which is usually accompanied by a stretch.

"Curving" is when dogs bend their whole body into a banana shape and move slowly in a circular fashion. This is a sign that the dog is trying to calm a situation.

One behavior that's often misread is a dog that lies on its back. "Some dogs, especially those that are anxious, may roll on their backs to indicate their wish to end an interaction," says Mullinax. "This is sometimes misinterpreted as the dog offering its belly to be petted or a sign of submission.”

Humans Often Misunderstood
Being aware of these subtle hints will make for a more harmonious existence with not just your dog, but other dogs as well. Consider how we tend to greet new dogs -- we look them in the eye, bend over them and put a hand on their heads. In dog language, says Christensen, "these gestures can actually be pretty threatening."

That doesn't mean you should curve into a banana, pant and wag your butt every time you meet a new dog. But having a walk-a-mile-in-their-paws perspective could put you and your four-legged friends closer to being on the same wavelength.

Brad Kloza is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Dog Daily. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and Discover.

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Posted on December 5, 2011

jane says: my yorkie fred, will tap my arm with his paw until i open my lap to him and let him sit down lol   im trying to ignore him and he keeps tapping my arm. ; )

Posted on August 10, 2011

Mellissa Fraley says: While every dog is certainly unique, and they develop their own personalities some ques still hold true to the species just like in humans. A yawn is often a sign of stress, even if you may not understand why the dog is stressed. Boredom could cause the dog stress, or affection is most cases. Dogs are not attuned to hugs as humans are. Dogs dont hug each other or great each other in that fashion. Most dogs show signs of stress when they receive hugs from their owner, but not obvious. They tolerate actions that please us, even if they're uncomfortable. I'm guilty of this as well. Most dogs are eager to please their owners that they will go outside of their natural reactions to obtain approval. We can't say 100% a yawn means stress, but in most cases I would say that's accurate. Remember stress is related to annoyances, mild discomforts, or unusal events.

Posted on July 12, 2011

Joann says: My dog does the "stress yawn" when she has to wait longer than usual for let's say: a walk, her meal, or other rexpected activity. We have a schedule and she can tell time almost to the minute by it. Not following the schedule gets her stressed and "yawning."

Posted on June 23, 2011

Liberty says: This article as the others by this website fly in the face of common sense and many other writers on the same topic or adamantly disagree with these comments.

Posted on June 25, 2011

Ev says: My dachshund yawns under stress or if she is overly excited. When she knows she is going for a car ride or if we take her to the vet she shivers, whines and yawns a lot. My pug does not react the same way - he just barks or whines and jumps at your legs when he is excited.

Posted on June 15, 2011

Sally-Dog says: PAULETTE HOLTEN says:Sally is a rescue Peakinese from Dr. Alex Hill, D.V.M .in Savannah, GA Sally is sweet , obedient and trained. She smiles at everyone. :) I am blessed to have her in my life.

Posted on June 13, 2011

Chris says: My dog fake yawns a lot when he's getting affection.  When we stop he'll close his eyes, fake yawn, look at me, then a big THUMP wag or two until I pet him again.  This can go on and on because he milks it because we laugh when he does it.  Mr. Personality!

Posted on May 11, 2011

Carol says: Chloe' is the sweetest Corgi in the world. Best dog buddy ever.

Posted on May 11, 2011

vickie says: My mini Schnauzer yawn like a cat's meow, doesn't seem stress always happy

Posted on May 11, 2011

lindap says: Where did he get his information my dog does not relate to any of this

Posted on May 28, 2011

jimva says: katy, I wonder the same thing. I've had two dogs at different times in my life (both shepherds) and the yawns have alwys been when they're contented and relaxed, or when they have reason to be especially happy. I've never observed the "yawn under stress " sign. Quite the opposite. Also, it's a known trait of Australian Shepherds that they curl themselves into a bannana when they happily great you. I think these "dog body language" articles way overgeneralize.

Posted on January 10, 2011

marysue says: dogs are wonderful company!

Posted on March 19, 2010


Posted on May 22, 2010

katy says: my dog is the happiest, and most loving, beagle of all time. but she will come and sit by me, look at me (when she wants something) and yawn when I talk to her. I am not aggressive towards her; I rarely yell and never hit. If yawning displays discomfort, why is she yawning.......

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