A Pet Parent’s Guide to Understanding Your Dog’s Body Language
It can be challenging to have a non-verbal best friend.
It is often easy for dog parents and their pooches to get their wires crossed. From misunderstood barks and groans to sideways glances and unnoticed head-tilts, humans often find themselves wondering, "what is my dog trying to say?"
For most animal lovers, especially pet parents, being able to talk to animals is a dream come true.
The truth is, our dogs are constantly trying to talk to us, we’re just not necessarily listening. Or at least not in the right way.
Dogs communicate through their body language. By understanding your dog’s body language, you can better understand your pup!
Most dogs display a variety of behaviours that can be interpreted as signs or cues as to what they are thinking or feeling.
Below are some of the most common types of body language displayed by dogs and what your dog is trying to tell you.
It’s all in the eyes
Philosopher, Martin Buber, once wrote ‘an animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language.’ This is especially true for dogs.
We are all familiar with those ‘puppy dog eyes’ dogs flash us. You know, the look that is impossible to resist?
But dogs actually use their eyes to communicate with us in several ways.
Eye contact is a fundamental part of human conversation and connection. In the dog world, this is quite similar.
Dogs use eye contact as a way of expressing dominance. When a dog maintains eye contact with another dog, each dog has a choice of either breaking the contact as a sign of submissiveness or maintaining the connection to prove their dominance.
The shape of your dog’s pupils can also tell you a lot about what they’re thinking or feeling.
When your dog is feeling tense their eyes may appear rounder than usual. Similarly, if their pupils are dilated it could be a sign of fear.
Dogs who are feeling more relaxed will often squint and their eyes will appear to be almond-shaped with little to no white showing.
When it comes to humans, dogs use eye contact a little bit differently.
While dogs will typically shy away from eye contact with strangers, with humans they love, eye contact can reinforce bonding and is a great way to build trust.
Research has shown that when we make eye contact with our pooches, oxytocin is released. This is the hormone responsible for love and bonding. Studies show that when our dogs make eye contact with us, their oxytocin levels can increase by up to 130%.
Often when your dog stares longingly into your eyes, it is a sign that they want to bond with you. You do not need to make direct eye contact in return as this may intimidate your dog. Instead, a few seconds of eye contact and some of your undivided attention will do the trick!
Dogs may also lock eyes with their humans if they need something. For example, if your dog needs to go outside, making eye contact with you may be the only way for them to communicate this to you.
Why does my dog wag his tail?
For the most part, when a dog is wagging their tails it is a sign of happiness and excitement.
However, not all tail wags signal excitement. The position of your dog’s tail is actually an important way to tell what your dog is feeling.
Usually, a tail tucked between the legs shows that your dog is feeling scared or fearful at something that is happening around them. This type of tail positioning could also indicate that they are fearful because they know they’ve done something wrong, which we commonly interpret as guilt.
For example, if your dog has chewed up your favourite pair of shoes while you were at work, they may greet you with their tail in between their legs. This shows that they are fearful of the punishment that they might receive.
In this type of situation, always remember that dogs do not learn from our anger. Rather take the time to see find the reasons behind their behaviour and instead make use of positive reinforcement.
A low slow wagging tail can often be viewed as your dog being nervous or curious about something they can’t properly see. For example, your dog may do this when they don’t fully recognise you from a distance, but once they do spot you, their tail will speed up and wag at a higher level. Showing that they are excited or very happy.
The faster the wag the more excitement or happiness they are feeling.
Finally, a tail held in a neutral un-wagging position shows that your dog is relaxed.
Why does my dog yawn?
You may sometimes see your dog yawn, even when they are excited or have spent most of the day napping.
This is because a dog's yawn is different from ours and is actually used as a form of communication.
Dogs will use yawning as a form of appeasement or as a calming gesture when they are experiencing a stressful situation within their comfort zone.
By yawning your dog is trying to tell you that they are nervous or unsure of a situation.
Your dog may also yawn as a way of communicating that they are not a threat, especially if they are meeting a new dog, or if you are playing with them.
In some cases, dogs yawn to try and get us to calm down. For example, if your dog has behaved badly and can sense that you are frustrated with them, they may yawn as a way of letting you know that they don’t understand the situation and need you to calm down.
Yawning can also be a sign of excitement. For example, if your dog yawns while you are getting ready to go for a walk, this is your dog’s way of saying, "yay! Let’s do this."
It all depends on the situation. So, it’s always important to observe your dog’s behavouir and assess the situation to try to give context to what they are trying to tell you.
A little known fact is that dog’s yawns are contagious! If you yawn you could cause your dog to yawn or vice versa.
Why does my dog sneeze?
Aside from the normal sneeze when something is irritating your dog’s nose, your dog sneezing could mean they are trying to tell you something.
Sneezing during playtime shows that your pooch is having fun and they want to ensure you are enjoying yourself too. In this type of situation, it’s important to your dog that you know they are not fighting, which is why they will often sneeze or even fake sneeze at you.
However, do not worry if your dog doesn’t sneeze during play, this type of behaviour is most common in small breeds.
Photo via: https://petlifetoday.com/
What Your Dog’s Hair Can Tell You
When humans experience intense emotions or fear, our bodies often respond physically in the form of goosebumps or raised arm hair.
Dogs have similar responses and their fur can tell us a lot about what they are thinking or feeling.
Usually, when a dog is upset or frightened the hair along their back will rise, which is known as raised hackles. This could be a sign that your dog is anticipating danger or it could be that they are really excited depending on the context of the situation.
Why does my dog tilt their head?
Have you ever noticed your dog tilting their heads when you are having a nice long conversation with them? It’s almost as if they are little humans too.
Well, it turns out they do this for several reasons and not just to look cute.
Some good news for pet parents. There is research being done that shows that dogs that tilt their heads are smarter and have a better bond with their parent.
In most cases, this type of behaviour means that they don’t understand something that is happening or they are trying to make sense of a new sound.
Dogs also have a very good sense of hearing and they will often tilt their heads to try and focus on a certain sound they are hearing, like everyone’s favourite word, ‘walk’'!
Some dogs may also tilt their head to help them see better, similar to how we sometimes squint our eyes to try to focus on an item.
Why does my dog smile at me?
Some dogs have mastered the art of smiling and it is a truly adorable sight!
In most cases, dogs have learnt to smile because they know it makes their humans happy.
Dogs learn through association and if they realise that a particular behaviour makes us happy or earns them a treat, they are likely to repeat this kind of behaviour.
So, in this case, your dog hitting you with a cute smile is just their way of saying ‘I love you and I want you to be happy.” Or maybe, ‘I love you, where are the treats at?”
This type of body language should however not be confused for a dog baring their teeth.
When a dog bares their teeth, it is usually a sign that they are uncomfortable in a situation and are starting to feel that aggressive behaviour may be necessary to protect themselves.
The best thing to do in this type of situation is to remove the stressor. For example, if your dog is starting to bare its teeth at an overly friendly stranger, remove them from the situation by walking away and distracting them.
Why does my dog sit with its paw on me?
Most dogs are just big love bugs who thrive off affection.
Pet parents may notice that their dogs paw at them or tend to sit or cuddle with their paw touching them.
In some cases, this could be because they’re trying to grab your attention. For example, your dog may paw at you or scratch you when they want to play or go for a walk.
As a pet parent, you will want to show your dog heaps of love and affection in the form of belly-rubs, cuddles, and pets. And it turns out, the feeling is very mutual.
Your dog ‘pawing’ you can be a sign of love, especially when your dog goes out of their way to sit with their paw touching you. It’s their way of saying, ‘I love you’.
As with most signs of body language, this is of course dependent on the context of the situation. For example, if your dog is ‘pawing’ at you and showing signs of distress like lip-smacking or yawning, they could be trying to tell you that they are stressed and need reassurance.
Returning the love
While there are many different reasons behind your dog’s body language, it is clear that in most cases they are trying to communicate happiness, love, or affection.
Now that you have learnt a bit about how your dog communicates with you, why not use some of these tips to return their affection?
When your dog stares lovingly at you, try to maintain eye contact while talking quietly to them. This is one of the best ways to show your dog how you feel about them. Raising your eyebrows while looking at your dog is also a sign of affection.
Head scratches are great, but if you want to go a bit further, go for the ears. Rubbing your dog’s ears can trigger the release of endorphins, which will make them feel amazing. It will also help them bond with you.
Snuggle up to them or let them snuggle against you. Try to avoid hugging them, as most dogs do not like this, but rather just be close to them and lean against them. This is a great way to let them know they are loved.
As far as showing your pooch you love them, you can never go wrong with treats, especially ones made with all-natural ingredients.