Dogs evolved to live alongside humans, but they haven’t developed the ability to speak. However, they do use their body signals to communicate with other dogs and humans, having created an entirely unique language. Learning your dog’s body language helps you understand what they need and want, and fosters a respectful, loving relationship. Our Neighborhood Veterinary Centers of Wallisville team shares what you need to know to become fluent in canine body language.

Why is reading your dog’s body language important?

To develop a safe, healthy relationship with your pooch, you need to learn dog body language. When you pay attention to your furry pal’s cues and understand their meaning, you can determine your pet’s emotional state and better tend to their needs. By being able to recognize your dog’s subtle stress signs, you can help prevent your pooch from biting, which is especially important around children. When you respect what your dog is saying to you, they feel more confident, which reinforces their natural communication skills.

How to use contextual clues to interpret canine body language

To interpret canine body language accurately, always consider the context and evaluate your dog’s behavior as a whole. Individual canine body signals can mean different things when they are combined with other signals or in different contexts. For example, a dog’s tail wag can mean happiness or excitement when combined with a loose, wiggly body approaching a beloved friend. However, the same tail wag can indicate impending aggression in a dog with hackles raised and ears perked forward toward a potential threat.

In addition, always keep in mind that your dog’s moods and emotional states can change throughout an interaction, and their body language will reflect that subtle, fluid shift. An interaction can start out positive and quickly become negative if your dog has mixed feelings about the situation. For example, your pooch may be happy to see their Neighborhood Veterinary Centers of Wallisville veterinary technician, but feel anxious about a medical procedure.

Canine body language cues

Each part of a dog’s body conveys a wealth of information about their emotional state. Remember that each cue can mean more than one thing, depending on the situation. Always think about context and look at your dog as a whole when you’re deciding how to accommodate their needs. When interpreting your dog’s body language, consider these cues:

  • Eyes — A relaxed dog may softly squint their eyes. However, an alert or anxious dog often holds their eyes wide open, and their pupils may be dilated. Whale eye is a common stress sign that occurs when a dog turns their head away from a threat while keeping a close watch on the source of their discomfort. A dog who is about to bite may stare and fixate on their target.
  • Ears — A relaxed dog’s ears remain in their neutral, natural position. A stressed dog often pulls their ears back against their head. An alert, excited, or aggressive dog may prick their ears forward.
  • Tail — A happy dog’s tail wags at about the height of their back. A fearful, stressed, or submissive dog holds their tail tucked under their body. An aggressive or alert dog may hold the tail high over their back, possibly quickly wagging.
  • Mouth — A tight, wrinkled mouth usually indicates stress or fear, as can panting with the lips pulled tightly back. A relaxed dog often holds their mouth slightly open in a classic dog smile. You may not understand what your dog is communicating when they show their teeth. If your canine companion shows their teeth while exhibiting a happy, relaxed posture, they are displaying the submissive grin, a harmless, peaceful gesture. However, if a stiff, snarling, or staring dog is showing their teeth, they are communicating a clear warning to leave them alone.
  • Body posture — A relaxed dog is loose and wiggly. A stressed dog often lowers their head or hunches their body. An aggressive, alert, or confident dog stands tall. If the hair on your pooch’s back raises, they may be feeling overly excited, which can occur during play or when they feel threatened. 

Dog bite prevention

By being able to read dog body language accurately, you can help prevent or avoid an unfortunate dog bite accident. A dog most often bites in a defensive manner because they are afraid. However, some dogs may bite in an offensive manner if they are guarding an object, person, or place. While many people proclaim that a dog bite occurred without warning, the dog likely exhibited many overlooked or ignored signs. Being able to recognize these signs is especially important when a dog interacts with children, whose quick movements and loud behavior can be frightening. Removing a dog from a situation when they begin to show discomfort signs, such as lip licking, yawning, panting, looking away, or turning away, is the best way to prevent this discomfort from escalating to a defensive bite. Remember, dogs see the world differently from people, and they need space and time to adjust to new situations.

Each dog is an individual, and they develop their own unique body language and vocal nuances when they learn how to communicate with other pets and people. Learning to understand your dog’s body language takes practice and intentional effort to ensure you spot important cues and interpret them correctly. Check in with our Neighborhood Veterinary Centers of Wallisville team if you struggle to understand your dog’s communication cues or believe a physical or behavioral problem could be causing your canine companion to act out. If you would like a referral to a canine training and behavior professional who can better address your dog’s needs, give us a call.