Learn to Read Your Dog’s Body Signals

Your dog is trying to communicate with you! Learn to understand his language.

Relaxed, open mouth; half-closed eyes, and ears partway to the side tell us that all is good with Otto’s world.

How many times have I heard a dog owner say, “If only they could speak!” And how many times have I bitten back my first retort: “But they can speak! You’re just not listening!”

We humans are a verbal species. We long for our beloved canine companions to speak to us in words we can easily understand. While they have some capacity for vocal communication, they’ll never be able to deliver a soliloquy, or carry on long meaningful conversations with their humans. English is a second language for them. Their first is body talk – body language communication in which they generally say, quite clearly, exactly what they mean. Our problem, and as a result theirs, is that we humans tend to listen with our ears, rather than our eyes, and miss much of what they are saying.

Dogs do use some vocalizations in their daily communication with us and with each other (see “Canine Vocalizations,”). However, their body language is both more expressive and more prevalent – it’s continual! – so observing them in action is of more use than just listening to them.

There are those who have spent a lot of time trying to understand dog behavior and have become skilled at reading canine body language. They seem to interact naturally with dogs, using their own subtle body language to communicate, as much as or more than they use words. But time alone doesn’t grant this skill; there are also those who have spent a lot of time with dogs but are still woefully inept at properly interpreting the canine message.

Grasping Dog Vocabulary

The more you learn about your dog’s subtle body language communications the better you’ll be at reading them – and intervening appropriately, well before your dog is compelled to growl, snap, or bite. It’s important that you not focus on just one piece of the message. The various parts of your dog’s body work together to tell the complete story; unless you read them all and interpret them in context, you’ll miss important elements. Be especially aware of your dog’s tail, ears, eyes, mouth, hair, and body posture. For a basic vocabulary, see the “Canine Body Parts Dictionary“.

Because dog communication is a constant flow of information, it’s sometimes difficult to pick out small signals until you’ve become an educated observer. Start by studying photographs of dog body language, then watch videos that you can rewind and watch repeatedly, finally honing your skills on live dogs. Dog parks, doggie daycare centers, and training class playgroups are ideal places to practice your observation skills. Sarah Kalnajs’ DVD set, “The Language of Dogs,” is an excellent resource for body-language study.

Oblivious to Your Dog’s Stress?

Dogs tell us when they feel stressed. The more aware you are of your dog’s stress-related body language, the better you can help him out of situations that could otherwise escalate to inappropriate and dangerous behaviors. Many bites occur because owners fail to recognize and respond appropriately to their dogs’ stress signals. Even aside from aggression, there are multiple reasons why it’s important to pay attention to stress indicators:

-Stress is a universal underlying cause of aggression.
-Stress can have a negative impact on a dog’s health.
-Dogs learn poorly when stressed.
-Dogs respond poorly to cues when stressed.
-Negative classical conditioning can occur as a result of stress.

Note: the reasons to pay attention to stress also apply to all species with a central nervous system, including humans.

The smart, aware owner is always on the alert for signs that her dog is stressed, so she can alleviate tension when it occurs. Owners whose dogs are easily stressed often become hyper-vigilant, watching for tiny signs that presage more obvious stress-related behaviors, in order to forestall unpleasant reactions. If more owners were aware of these subtle signs of stress, fewer dogs would bite. That would be a very good thing.

A Canine Stress Dictionary lists some stress behaviors that are often overlooked. With each behavior the appropriate immediate course of action is to identify the stressor(s) and determine how to decrease the intensity of that stressful stimulus. In many cases you can accomplish this by increasing the distance between your dog and the stressor, be it a child, another dog, uniforms, men with beards, etc.

If possible, remove the stressor from your dog’s environment entirely. If he’s stressed by harsh verbal corrections, shock collars, and warthogs, those are all things you can simply remove from his existence (unless you live in Africa, in which case warthog removal might prove challenging).

For those stressors that can’t be eliminated, a long-term program of counter-conditioning and desensitization can change your dog’s association with a stressor from negative to positive, removing one more trigger for stress signals and possible aggression. Another strategy is to teach the dog a new operant (deliberate) response to the stressor – for example, teaching your dog that the sound of the doorbell means “Run to your crate to get a high value treat.” (See “Knock, Knock,” WDJ February 2010.)

Ears flat back, a hard stare, lowered body posture, and tension in the closed mouth are signs of a fearful dog. Approach with caution; better yet, don’t approach at all.

Bitten “Without Warning”

The number of times a person has been bitten gives big clues as to his or her capacity to read, understand, and properly respond to canine communications. No sane person wants to be bitten by a dog. If someone has been on the receiving end of canine teeth numerous times, they aren’t paying attention to what the dogs are saying, or they aren’t responding appropriately.

Before they bite, dogs almost always give clear – albeit sometimes subtle – signals. The mythical “bite without warning” is truly a rare occurrence. Most of the time the human just wasn’t “listening.”

Happy Talk

We tend to focus on aggression signals because they are the most impressive and can predict danger. But any observant and aware dog owner knows that dogs offer a lot of happy communications as well. Behaviors such as jumping up, pawing, nudging, barking, and mouthing are often about happy excitement and attention-seeking.

Look for the signals that tell you your dog loves your new boyfriend, adores playing with the neighbor’s kids, enjoys riding in the car, is happy to romp with your brother’s dogs, and totally digs chasing the tennis ball. It’s important to pay attention to those communications as well so you know what makes him happy.

Your dog speaks to you all the time. Remember to listen with your eyes.

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Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, grew up in a family that was blessed with lots of animal companions: dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, goats, and more, and has maintained that model ever since. She spent the first 20 years of her professional life working at the Marin Humane Society in Marin County, California, for most of that time as a humane officer and director of operations. She continually studied the art and science of dog training and behavior during that time, and in 1996, left MHS to start her own training and behavior business, Peaceable Paws. Pat has earned a number of titles from various training organizations, including Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA) and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA). She also founded Peaceable Paws Academies for teaching and credentialing dog training and behavior professionals, who can earn "Pat Miller Certified Trainer" certifications. She and her husband Paul and an ever-changing number of dogs, horses, and other animal companions live on their 80-acre farm in Fairplay, Maryland.