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Dog Body Language: What You Need to Know

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In recognition of National Dog Bite Prevention Week, we’ve got tips on recognizing dog body language from dog trainer Colleen Safford, founder of New York Walk & Train, named “Best of NY” by New York Magazine.

understanding dog body language

Dogs talk to us all the time. It’s time to start listening!

To date, the big emphasis of dog bite prevention has been supervision and management. We are reminded that not all dogs are comfortable with someone near their food dish, that we should always approach dogs with caution after asking permission, and told kids and dogs should always be supervised.  

Still, 4.5 million people each year in the US are bitten.

Dog bite prevention is deeper than supervision and management.

If we are truly going to learn how to prevent a dog bite, we need to have a better understanding of the cues and language our dogs use to communicate with us.

We all know that growling and agitated barking are not a good thing, but we miss the other numerous body cues offered by dogs to let us know they are uncomfortable and that they have the potential to bite.

As a population, we need to learn to speak dog and become savvy dog listeners.

Dog bites do not happen out of the blue.

Dogs actually tell us they are uncomfortable long before biting.

Every time you approach your dog, pet him, talk to him, he talks back.

We just don’t understand it, because we don’t know how to speak dog fluently.

Most of us fail to understand and see the more subtle and more frequently used cues like the yawn, head turn, soft blink, lip lick, ear flick, stretch and shake off.

When your dog offers each of the behaviors above, he is telling you something about your interaction with him or something in the environment that is making him a bit uneasy, alert or aroused or stressed.

Dog body language is researched, reliable and we can learn it and speak it.

I will never suggest that you growl or bark at your dog, but you can offer body language and subtly change the way you show your dog affection which will be more in tune with his natural language, making him more at ease.

Regardless of dog bites, learning your dog’s language will help strengthen the relationship you have with him.

You are going to live with him for 12-17 years, right? It just makes sense to strengthen your relationship by understanding each other’s language. You will be a better listener and communicator yourself.

Do You Know the Six Signs of a Happy Dog?

  1. Ears that are in the neutral and natural relaxed position (they are not pricked forward or dropped back.)
  2. Loose, flappy, relaxed lips
  3. Open relaxed mouth, jaw
  4. Tongue that is droopy and just hanging there.
  5. Sitting or standing in a neutral position. Their weight is neither shifted forward or back nor firmly planted.
  6. Their shoulders are relaxed. They are not cowering down and back or tightened forward.

Signs of arousal and alertness in dog body language

A dog who is offering the cues below is telling you that he is focused on something.

  • Closed Mouth
  • Ears forward
  • Possible wrinkles to “forehead” (Yes, I know pugs, boxers and bullies always have wrinkles!)
  • Tail high up in air
  • Tail may or may not wag. If it wags, it moves slowly and stops. Slowly and stops.
  • Intense Stare
  • Body Still
  • Body weight leaning forward
  • He is trying to decide how he feels about it; and possibly deciding what action he might take in response to it. Will he chase it? Bark at it? Lunge at it? Or simply adjust to it and return to normal?

This is not a time to begin petting your dog.

Most dogs are very tolerant of our interactions and in this case our interruptions, when they have a relationship with us. This can lead to frustration however and depending on the dog and your relationship with it a redirected bite.   

Compare it to you trying to concentrate or make a decision when someone interrupts your thought process.

I allow my dog to investigate the world uninterrupted when it’s healthy (i.e. not having a stare down with a dog that is barking and lunging at her).  

I calmly and positively redirect her focus to me by using a chirping voice (not physical prompting or touching), when I think it’s serving neither of us any good or when there is a possibility for her to become more aroused.

I never interrupt or approach a dog that does not know me when he’s intensely focused on something else.

Recognizing Signs of Anxiety in Dog Body Language

A lot of the subtle cues our dogs use to let us know they are feel a bit anxious with an interaction or environment go unnoticed.

Below is a list of cues that your dog will give. Often these cues are given when we interact with our dogs.

If you notice that when you are petting your dog he is doing a lot of licking of his chops or looks at you with half moon eyes  (where you can see a lot of white in the corner), you might question why? Are you petting his head? Are you looming over him? Are you holding him a bit tight?

Dogs use this language to diffuse conflict.

See if a scratch on his chest or bum is something he is more comfortable with. When you approach him try to not lean over and hug him.

To recognize anxiety, and thereby help reduce the chance of dog bites, look for these eight signs of anxiety:

  1. Whale eye or half moon eye
  2. Lifted paw
  3. Shake Off – as if wet
  4. Yawn
  5. Tongue flick or licking lips
  6. Scratching at collar
  7. Suddenly sniffs the ground
  8. Head Turn
Paris Permenter
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