Dog Body Language
To get a feel for what your dog is telling you, it is essential to look at his whole body to read the signals. Here we look at a dog’s eyes, mouth, ears, and tail and the messages each of these body parts is telling you.
What Does a Dog’s Body Language Mean?
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. Lisa is a 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.
What Do a Dog’s Eyes Tell You?
All mammals communicate information with their eyes. In any given moment, we humans are not that consciously aware of it, even though we are taking it in. For example, you might notice that someone looks angry or sad, even though you haven’t analyzed why. Looking into a person’s eyes helps reveal how that individual feels.
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.
In their book Good Dog!: Kids Teach Kids About Dog Behavior and Training, Evelyn Pang and Hilary Louie share how dogs can communicate with their eyes. Here are some common emotions and how your dog shows them with its eyes:
Happy – Your dog looks at you but does not stare. Your pal’s eyes will look relaxed yet not sleepy.
Scared – A frightened dog will tend to look away, shielding its eyes from the person, the other dog, or the object causing the fear.
Angry – Just like a mad person, a mad dog will look at you right in the eyes and stare glaringly.
Really Angry – Pang and Louie warn against what they call “the half-moon.” The half-moon is when the whites of your dog’s eyes take on a half-moon shape. If you see this, be prepared for trouble. According to the authors, dogs often display this look when they are about to bite or attack someone.
What Does a Dog’s Mouth Tell You?
Tight lips are often signs of stress, but the difference between uncomfortable and threatening can be subtle. Another clue might be breathing changes: Going from panting to closed-mouth breath indicates a shift to discomfort, and the opposite suggests increased happiness.
Is Yawning a Sign of Stress in Dogs?
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.”
Why Does a Dog Yawn?
Yawns are “contagious,” meaning that if you see someone else yawn, you are more likely to yawn too. Dogs may do this as well, and not just after seeing another dog yawn. If you yawn and your dog is nearby and paying attention, there is a good chance that it will stretch and enjoy the extra inhale/exhale.
Dog’s Yawn to Cool the Brain
There are many different theories about why people, dogs, and other animals yawn, not to mention why this behavior is contagious. Compelling evidence suggests that yawning helps cool off the brain. Like the fan turning on in your computer when it reaches a specific temperature, it’s thought that the brain may need extra air during particular times and situations.
“Brains are like computers,” says Andrew Gallup, a researcher in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University. Gallup led a study concerning yawning that was published a few years ago in the journal Animal Behaviour. He adds that brains “operate most efficiently when cool, and physical adaptations have evolved to allow maximum cooling of the brain.”
Dogs Yawn From Stress
I recently taught Riker, my four-year-old Australian Shepherd, a new scenting exercise in which he had to find a scented article hid among other items with different scents. (This is similar to the AKC scent discrimination exercise in Utility-level obedience.) I thought the training was progressing well, but then I noticed Riker was yawning at me. He would make eye contact, hold it for a second, look away, and then yawn. He was trying to tell me to ease up a bit. We did something else (a few easy retrieves) to stop his training session with praise for him and then took a break from our training for a few minutes. I let him run, relieve himself, I rubbed his tummy, and then we went back to training. With that break, he was back on course, and our training session ended well.
Although some experts have suggested that dog owners can use yawning to change their dog’s behavior (for example, to calm a tense situation), I have not seen that work effectively. A human yawn to change canine behavior would require the dog to be willing to accept that kind of guidance, and if the dog were ready, other training tools or techniques would work just as well.
However, knowing that your dog may yawn to calm you or relieve stress you may be putting on the dog (especially in training situations) can be very useful. Just recognize that a yawn may signal more than sleepiness!
Since you and your dog share the same living environment, it makes sense that your pet would copy your yawning. This copying likely happens as a sort of knee-jerk reaction, just like you might yawn when a co-worker does, not even thinking about your behavior.
Another theory is that yawning shows empathy and therefore helps build social connections. A recent study conducted at Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University determined that chimpanzees yawn more after watching familiar chimps yawn than watching strangers.
“The idea is that yawns are contagious for the same reason that smiles, frowns and other facial expressions are contagious,” write researchers Matthew Campbell and Frans de Waal. “Our results support the idea that contagious yawning can be used as a measure of empathy because the biases we observed were similar to empathy biases previously seen in humans.”
Dog Empathy Through Yawning
Although the Yerkes study focused on primates, findings could most likely apply to dogs since they also exhibit contagious yawning. So the next time you let out a soft, relaxed yawn, take a look at your dog and see how it reacts. If your dog yawns, it’s a good sign that your pet is paying attention to you and is working to maintain a connection.
Yawning is something many animals do, from lizards and snakes to almost all primates, including people. Often yawning signifies sleepiness or boredom, but many experts believe yawning is also social behavior. Psychologist Robert Provine of the University of Maryland in Baltimore County notes that human yawning is not just a gaping mouth but a gaping mouth combined with a stretched jaw, a tilted head, and squinting eyes. And a real yawn can be contagious; one person yawns and those watching all soon begin to yawn. Provine suggests this infectious yawning could be a subconscious behavior that ties people together, a signal of empathy.
Several canine behavior experts believe yawning plays a similar role in canine social behavior. Recently I saw dogs playing at a local dog park use yawning behavior to slow down a rough play session. Several large dogs were running around the dog park, with a few small terriers in pursuit. When the terriers caught up with the big dogs, they began nipping at legs, jumping at faces, and otherwise showing some rough play. In the middle of the rough play, two of the larger dogs sat down, scratched, and yawned. After these two dogs yawned, a third and fourth yawned, and the play’s activity level slowed significantly. A potential dog fight was averted, all because a few of the dogs scratched and yawned!
What Do a Dog’s Ears Tell You?
Erect ears reveal a dog on high alert while ears are pulled back to show an anxious or stressed dog. 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 same thing as goosebumps 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. Like we get goosebumps at a scary movie or hearing a heartwarming story, dogs get goosebumps when emotions run high.”
What Does a Dog’s Tail Tell You?
Your dog’s tail is an essential indicator of your pet’s emotional state. It’s a form of body language that dogs take very seriously, and you should too. It can be a lifesaver, mainly when teaching young children how to react toward strange dogs.
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
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.
Stanley Coren, author of the book How to Speak Dog: Mastering the Art of Dog-Human Communication, explains that when a dog holds its tail lower than the horizontal, but still some distance away from the legs, the dog is usually relaxed and communicating, “All is well.” An occasionally relaxed swishing back and forth may happen during this state.
When your dog’s tail is down and near straightened hind legs, your dog may be communicating some distress, either physical or mental. If your dog’s hind legs are bent slightly inward, your dog is probably expressing insecurity. Coren explains that dogs will often assume this posture and tail position when introduced to a new, unfamiliar environment. They may even do this when a favorite family member leaves, with the dog knowing (from experience) that the person’s return may take a while.
A Tucked Tail
When a dog’s tail is tucked, the dog’s apprehension has now turned into fear. Coren says that it communicates, “I’m frightened!” or, “Don’t hurt me!” Tail tucking makes sense, as the dog is protecting its vulnerable tail from possible attack. While the dog might be feeling submissive, it could also attack in perceived defense. Therefore, it’s best not to approach a strange dog that is displaying this level of insecurity.
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,” signifies 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. Curving 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 Misunderstand Dog Body Language
Being aware of these subtle hints will make for a more harmonious existence with your dog and other dogs. 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 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.