Understand Meaning of Dog Body Language

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One of the reasons dogs make such good pets is their ability to communicate with us. In fact, they’re often better at understanding us than we are at reading their body language. But if you can tune in to your dog’s posture, ears, mouth, fur and tail, you should be able to understand.

Why is it important to understand a dog's body language?

Dogs cannot speak like humans, but they have their own language in which they communicate with us. They do not use words as we do, and hence, it can be tough to identify their messages at first. But with time, we can learn to read their signals and identify their gestures and sounds, like they begin to learn our words and commands. It is important to read a dog’s body language to understand what they wish to convey. Their gestures and sounds can indicate their pain, distress, warnings, anger, and a lot more. Even their facial expressions convey these messages. Once you begin understanding your dog’s body language and its meaning, you can identify if your dog is scared or nervous about certain things. You can then prevent those occurrences or at least take your dog to a safer place. You might also be able to identify your dog’s anger and prevent them from snapping at someone.

How can it impact the bonding between you and your dog?

Communication is the biggest factor that can strengthen the bond between two living individuals. Once you start understanding what someone is conveying to you, you begin developing a bond with them. The same stands true for the bond between a dog and their owner. Just like you feel happy when your dog understands commands, or their name is being called out, your dog also feels happy when you begin understanding them. As soon as you begin reading and understanding your dog’s body language and emotional state, they develop a deeper bond of trust and respect with you.

Types of Dog Communication

Canine communication mostly consists of vocal and physical communication. Their vocal communication can be barking, whimpering, growling, snarling, etc. And their physical communication can be either body language and posture or actions. However, it has been observed that dogs rely on communicating via body language more than vocal communication. You might be familiar with some of the most common canine body language and vocal signals, like barking, whining, tail-wagging, and licking. However, all of these actions can have multiple meanings and not just the one we perceive. Let us take a deeper look at what dogs’ body languages mean, along with their vocal signals.

  1. Physical Communication Through Tail, Mouth, and Fur

Most canines’ body language and physical communication will be indicated by their tail. If your dog has held their tail high and is wagging it rapidly, they are feeling excited. If their tail is straight out and they are wagging it slowly, they are feeling nervous. When they are alert, the dogs’ tails will be upright, and if they are feeling scared, they will tuck their tails between their legs. If their tail is relaxed, the dog is also feeling relaxed.

In the case of the dogs’ fur, if they are calm, their fur will also be relaxed and smooth. And if the dogs are feeling scared or upset, their fur will be raised.

In the case of their mouth, if they are relaxed, their mouth will either be relaxed or be slightly open, with the tongue hanging out. If they are licking themselves or flicking their tongue, they might be feeling uneasy. And if their lip is curled and teeth are exposed, they might be showing aggression.

  1. Physical Communication Through Eyes and Ears

Like their tails, dogs also communicate a lot with their ears. If they are feeling calm, you will see that their ears are in a relaxed position that feels natural to them. If you see their ears are erect, then the dogs are alert or feeling aggressive. And if their ears are pulled back and flat on their head, they are feeling scared or stressed.

Your dog’s eyes too can tell you a lot about their mood and emotions. When they are relaxed or calm, you will be able to tell by their calm expressions. And if you notice a dog directly staring at you, know that it might want to assert dominance. Also, if you notice their pupils are dilated, they are feeling aggressive. If your dog turns away from you, it is a sign that they may be unhappy.

  1. Vocal Communication

Vocal communication for dogs is barking, growling, whining, or howling. When your dogs are barking, they are trying to express themselves loudly. Their barking is not necessarily for anger or alertness. Dogs also bark to express too much excitement or happiness. If their barking is continuous and fast-paced, it is a sign of alertness or warning. Your dog may also express their excitement or happiness with a high-pitched bark, but it won’t be continuous and fast-paced. If a dog growls or gives off a deep bark, it is a warning to not approach them.

A whine or yelp is a dog’s way of crying or calling for help. They may also whine if they are not getting enough attention. Their body language during whining may also indicate their needs. Their howling is their way of trying to communicate with other dogs, who may be at a distance.

Dogs’ Body Language in Various Situations

Here are some more points to further understand dogs’ body language and their meanings according to various situations:

  • Relaxed:

A dog standing on grass

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When a dog is relaxed, their tail will be in a relaxed position, and their ears will not be front-facing while erect.

  • Alert:

A dog running on the beach

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When a dog is alert, they may stand upright with their tails sticking out in a horizontal position, with their ears facing frontwards.

  • Aggressive:

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When a dog is feeling aggressive, their tail and ears may become upright, their legs stiffened, and their lips curled in a snarling manner.

  • Fearful (Aggressive & Worried)

A puppy lying in the grass

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If a dog is aggressive while being fearful, their fur will be raised, tail tucked between their legs, their ears pulled flat backwards, and they may also snarl.

If they are worriedly fearful, their tail may hang down and may wag a little, their ears will still be pulled backwards, and they may call for help with a raised paw.

  • Stressed

A dog standing on a road

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When a dog is stressed, their tail will be lowered, their ears pulled backwards, their body may also be lowered, and they may show signs like panting.

  • Playfulness

A dog running through a field of flowers

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To show playfulness, a dog will wag their tail rapidly while keeping it in an upward direction and may stick out their tongue as if smiling.

Some Examples When Dog is Communicating

Lopsided grin: “Let’s be friends!”     
Lips drawn back to expose teeth: “Don’t come any closer!”     
As above, with a growl: “I’m warning you!”     

Ears pricked up: “What’s up?”     
Ears held back or flattened: “Help, I’m not sure about this.”     

Eyes narrowed: “Isn’t life great!” or “I’m just a little pup, please be nice!”     
Eyes wide open: “Just let me at that postman/cat/squirrel/rubber chicken!”     

Front paw raised: “Let’s play!”     

Quick bow, plus barking: “Play with me now!”     
Bounding around you or another dog: “Let’s chase!”     

Bristling appearance - ears, tail and hackles all up: “I’m top dog!”     
As above, plus wags tail slowly and growls: “And don’t you forget it!”     

Crouching, tail held low and wagging exaggeratedly: “You’re the boss!”     
As above, with licking: “I’m your loyal best friend!”     
Rolling over onto back: “My fate is in your hands!”     

Tail wagging freely: “I’m happy! Let’s be friends!”     
Tail wagging horizontally, slowly and stiffly: “Watch out, I might bite!”     
Tail clamped low over hindquarters: “I’m frightened!”     
Tail wagging while hanging down: “I’m sorry!”     

(Some breeds, like Whippets and the Greyhounds, naturally carry their tail in the clamped-down position. But generally, a tail held at higher than 45 degrees to the spine shows interest and alertness.)

You can encourage your dog to repeat behaviours you like. You can use a combination of dog training treats, verbal praise and stroking so that they will be motivated to communicate with you.

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Frequently Asked Questions on Dog’s Body Language

Your dog licks you for either of the two reasons:

  • It is their way of showing you love and affection. When they lick you, it also makes them feel good as it is their natural way of seeking comfort.
  • They are asking for attention. Dogs may also lick you if they want you to pet them or play with them.

Dogs stare at their owners to show affection, just like humans do. If you return the stare, your dog will actually feel loved. Mutual staring between you and your dog can also strengthen your bond and increase their trust in you

When a dog lies on their back in front of you, they are in their submissive and vulnerable position. So, when a dog lets you rub their belly, it means that the dog trusts you and they feel safe around you. Rubbing their belly also releases serotonin for them and makes them feel happier.

Your dog will show the following signs if it loves you:

  • Gets excited to see you: They may jump on you, lick your face, and wag their tail excitedly.
  • Seeks physical contact: They may approach you for a belly rub or cuddle you or may just lean on you.
  • Sleeps near you: If a dog sleeps near you, it means they trust you and feel safe around you.