What is a dog trying to tell you?

We can tell the difference between a bark, a growl or a whimper and whine. A dog may well use some of these to gain your attention or hold you back. But much like human to human interaction, communication goes deeper than sounds alone.

Like us, your dog is constantly communicating with you through body language. Telling you whether it’s happy, sad, anxious, in pain or stressed. Paying attention to your dogs face, ears, body and tail is a great way to understand how they feel. From moment to moment. 

I’m a happy dog

I’m some ways the easiest body language to read. They say a dog can’t smile but I dispute this. Often I catch mine with a smile on her face.

Signs to look for:

  1. A high wagging tail. The best known. If the tail is high and really springing from side to side, yet relaxed, then they are happy. Even excited and playful.
  2. Floppy ears. When their ears are relaxed, generally their face is too. (The smile?) Nothing is bothering them. At moments of excitement (getting the lead for a walk or getting the food ready) the ears may go flat to the back of the head. Though in this instant they will also be accompanied by the high wagging tail. Otherwise ears back can be a sign of stress. Pricked up ears, they are alert and focused.
  3. Relaxed body. If your dog is relaxed with no hunching, stiffness or tension this is good. If they display wiggleness or pure flopped outness then this is even better. They are super chilled. There will also be a softness to the eyes without a fixed gaze and their shoulders will be loose.
  4. They’re playful. Always a great sign we are in good form. No different for your pooch. The play “bows” are a good sign that they are up for a game.
  5. Leaning into you. A relaxed dog who enjoys someone’s company will want attention from them. This is good. They will lean against you with their weight when stroked. This is even better.

I’m an unhappy dog

Again, some of the signals can be easy to interrupt. Though others can be more subtle and if ignored can escalate.

Signs to look out for:

  1. A tucked tail. Often a sign of submission in a dog. Tucking their tail usually means that they are unsure of the circumstance but aren’t posing an immediate threat. Like the tucked the dog may keep it’s tail low with a slow wag. Again, they’re feeling the ground and are unsure.
  2. Body tension. A worried dog may hold their bodies in a tensed position. Arched up in the mid with low head. They may also back away from what causing them concern. If they freeze completely still in a tense position, they are very worried. Body tension can also be a sign of pain. I would advise a look over from a vet if any tension persists for no clear reason.
  3. Ears pinned back. If this isn’t accompanied with a high wagging tail and the tail is tucked or wagging very slowly, then they are not happy. Again this can be a sign of submission but it is saying ‘I’m not sure and am currently a bit worried’
  4. Turn the head away. If your dog is unhappy with something you or someone else is doing, they’ll try to turn their head away from you. They may even give you a short one lick before doing this.
  5. Appeasement behaviour. A dog might roll over onto their back, but stay stiff and still once there rather than doing it in a relaxed way. This means they’re worried and trying to let you know they aren’t out to hurt you. They may also lick their lips repeatedly or ‘yawn’. These are all signs they feel uncomfortable with the situation. They are trying to give you low-key signals they want it to stop.
  6. Hiding. If unhappy with a situation or somebody, your dog may try to hide behind you. This is fine, let them do this and don’t push them into any situation which causes them concern. Mine still does this on rainy days to hide from cars splashing her. Something that happened when she was young, with which she ended up in my arms.

Ok, I’m unhappy, getting panicky and might lose my rag.

On occasion an unhappy or worrying situation for a dog can resort in them turning to aggression. This can especially be the case if dog feels threatened or frightened. Again they will display body language to tell you this is how they are feeling. There can be many reasons for a dog to feel threatened or frightened. If a dog is in pain for example, they might be more prone to lash out at any attention because they are anxious. If their signals that they are worried have been ignored they may well resort to aggressive behaviour. 

Signs to look out for:

  1. Stiff tail. Some dogs will display a stiff tail behind them which shakes rather than wags. Some may also retain the tucked tail.
  2. Body position. This can vary a little. They will either be tall, upright and alert. Certainly not relaxed. Some may lower themselves to the ground but with weight back on their haunches, in a ready to pounce position. Both positions are the dog readying themselves for a response.
  3. Ears alert or flat. A dog showing aggressive signals will have their ears stiff upright and alert or flat to the back of the head. Not floppy and relaxed.
  4. Eye contact. Dogs will stare at other dogs or people when being outwardly aggressive. If a dog goes very still and stares at you with a fixed glaze stop all interaction immediately.
  5. Baring teeth. A dog showing aggression may bare their teeth and growl as a warning. Never ignore these signs. Growls can quickly turn into dangerous bites if the dog still feels threatened and is unable to escape. However,  just because a dog hasn’t growled yet doesn’t mean they won’t bite so keep a close eye out for the other signs too.

Try to be understanding with your dog and don’t force them into a situation where they will be uncomfortable. If you learn their body language you can help keep them comfortable and happy. Giving them what they’re asking for.

If your dog is showing signs that they are anxious or stressed on a regular basis, take them to the vet. There could be an underlying cause. If there is an obvious reason ie., fireworks night, a vets will be able to offer pointers. They will also guide you to behaviour specialists and a wide range of treatments if necessary. 

Here’s to happy new interactions with your dog and dogs in general.

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