John Woods, founder of "All Things Dogs" and a recognised author by the Dog Writers Association of America, talks about dog body language, and how to understand it.
I don’t think I’m the first dog owner to have a sinking feeling in my gut when I read that dogs do in fact lie awake at night, worrying about their day. Like the age-old adage, “a problem shared is a problem halved,” we almost feel helpless that our faithful friends can’t tell us their woes. However, dogs do speak. We just need to learn how to listen. We must watch their body language.
Dog body language
Like the age-old adage, “a problem shared is a problem halved,” we almost feel helpless that our faithful friends can’t tell us their woes.
A dog’s body language tells us exactly how they are feeling. We just need to know what to look for. It also gives us a pretty good shot at avoiding potential disasters when meeting new people and dogs. As socialisation is a huge part of dog ownership, we really need to pull out all the stops to get it right.
If we know Fido is stressed, we can remove him from the situation before he feels the need to defend himself. If we know that he is coping with the situation, we can leave him to figure it out, play or interact.
So what do we need to look out for?
We watch his body.
Is his body stiff? Rigid? Is he walking tentatively? In these scenarios, Fido is stressed. Something isn’t quite right for him. He may also be making himself appear smaller or cowering away. On the other hand, a soft, relaxed demeanour shows he’s quite chilled out and happy.
Look at his eyes. Soft and relaxed means he’s fine. Are they wide open? He could just be showing interest in something new. Scared dogs will often cower and close their eyes, almost like a child - "If I can’t see you, you can’t see me."
The mouth is what most owners will notice. Bared teeth and snarled lip are a pretty obvious sign of aggression. But prior to this, you may just notice intermittent snarling of the lip. If you can remove your pooch at this stage, you stand a much better chance of avoiding a disaster.
Pursed lips and lack of panting is a sure sign that Fido is stressed. You may notice this at the veterinarians or groomers.
Lip licking too? He’s definitely stressed. On the other side of this scale, excessive panting is also a sign of stress.
Think of a time you’ve been stressed? Did you get warm? Stress increases the metabolic rate which increases body temperature. Dogs pant to cool themselves down. You will know the normal panting rate for your dog and will soon learn when panting, or lack thereof, is a sign of stress.
Alert ears? He’s probably just interested in something. Flat or tucked ears; he’s stressed or scared.
Fido’s tail is also a big give away. Not a sign of guilt, as most owners think, tail tucking is just a sign of stress. A raised tail can mean interest but can also be a sign of aggression, often accompanied by raised hackles. This is when the hair around his neck and along his back stands on edge. This is due to the release of the stress hormone adrenaline, which causes the contraction of skin muscles. Stress hormones prime the body for the flight or fight response, but the hair on end gives the illusion that the animal is bigger than they actually are.
What to remember
Watching for the above body language signals could mean the difference between making a new friend in the dog park or finding a new enemy! It could also mean the difference between a guest in the home being nipped at or that you notice his uncertainty soon enough to take Fido to his safe place to chill out.
Dogs do speak, we just need to watch their body language to listen and learn.
Founder of All Things Dogs, a member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, graduate in animal welfare and behaviour and a recognised author by the Dog Writers Association of America.