Most dog owners have probably thought, “I wish I knew what my dog was thinking.” Obviously, dogs can’t talk, but that doesn’t mean they don’t communicate. The key to understanding them is to understand their body language and cues, and interpret their vocalizations. (Check out this article to learn what your dog’s vocalizations mean.)
Learning to understand your dog’s body language is fun and interesting, and critically important. Victoria Stilwell, an English dog trainer, author and television presenter, says that “gestures or actions that we assume mean one thing are actually the dog telling us the opposite. Misinterpreting what a dog’s body language means can sometimes be the difference between a belly rub and a bite.”
Before delving in to what a dog’s body language means, we must understand the types of emotions dogs experience. According to an article from Modern Dog Magazine, dogs are capable of feeling a broad range of emotions:
Dogs often exhibit these emotions though body language. Some behaviors overlap with other closely related emotions; therefore, some behaviors have been grouped together.
Dogs nose-nudge for several reasons, for example to get attention or to let you know you’re in the way. But if a dog nose-nudges you and then looks up into your eyes, it’s showing affection. In fact, eye contact for many dogs is a sure sign of love. However, never have a staring contest with an unknown or nervous dog — it could be interpreted as threatening.
Other signs of affection and love include:
- Snuggling with you
- Licking you
- Jumping up and down in your presence
- Leaning against you
- Rolling on its back for a belly rub (which also shows a high degree of trust)
Shy or suspicious dogs try to make themselves appear small. They do this by flattening their ears against their head. Do not attempt to pet a shy dog. Instead, kneel and extend your hand about one foot from the dog. This way the dog can sniff you from a comfortable distance and approach when they feel comfortable.
This emotion is easy to detect. A dog feeling joy wags its tail and maybe its whole body wiggles. Joyful dogs literally jump for joy. Some run from room to room or take a mad dash through the yard. This may all be done while barking or whimpering in excitement. Others lie on their back and wiggle hoping to get a belly rub.
Some angry dogs will literally give you the cold shoulder, turning their back when called and refusing to look your way, or to even accept a gift. Others “slap” with a paw swipe. Sometimes this means they want something; but it can also mean they want you to stop whatever it is you’re doing.
Have you ever been so angry at somebody that you just wanted to pee on their carpet? (Hopefully not, and if you have, you should seek help immediately.) However, when a house-trained dog does this it might be payback for a perceived slight and their way of telling you they are really mad.
It’s important to know when a dog is feeling fearful or anxious. For one, it will help you alleviate their fear. Two, it can help you avoid a bite or attack. Here’s a list of body-language indicators to look for:
- Flattened ears
- Tail tucked between the legs
- Averted eyes
- Raised hair on the back of the neck
- Loss of bladder or bowel control/submissive urination
- Clinginess to owner
A dog’s feeling of disgust isn’t connected to moral judgement; it’s merely a negative reaction to something unpleasant to its senses. This is what many dogs look like when they experience disgust.
Learning your dog’s language will help to communicate and respond to your dog’s needs — and build strong bonds between you and your dog. Consider this a first lesson in how to speak dog!