Body Language in Dogs
Most communication between dogs, is done through eye contact and body language. They are mostly non-verbal communicators. We should learn from and get to know our own dogs body language so that we can understand their communication patterns.
A common myth in dog body language is that a dog’s wagging tail means that it is happy. This may be the case, but not definitely. A better description of what a wagging tail indicates is:
A wagging tail merely means “I’m willing to engage” on what level, depends on the situation.
When looking at a dog’s tail we can break it down and look at three different areas, Height, Rigidity and Speed.
Some breeds have a naturally high or curly tail, these are exceptions to this rule. Generally, a tail that is being held low, between a dog’s legs is where a dog is communicating it is scared and avoiding confrontation. When a dog’s tail is held high, then it can mean that this dog is on high alert.
The rigidity of the tail is usually a clearer indicator of how a dog feels about a situation. The stiffer or more rigid the tail is, is usually a direct indication of how tense the dog is feeling at that moment in time. A lucid, or floppy tail is a sign of a dog feeling relaxed.
The speed of the tail is usually a very clear indicator of how fast the dogs brain is having to process information, and its arousal level.
When we combine all three of these, we can get a clearer understanding of what the dog is communicating through its tail, it may be wagging but it could be communicating that it is nervous, tense or scared, or of course happy.
Dogs display stress in many ways, fiddle behaviours are signs to look for if your dog is stressed. These behaviours are normal dog behaviours that you will see them complete in normal non-stressful situations, and context must always be applied. In circumstances where the dog is potentially uncomfortable, and the arousal level of the dog has risen to the Amber in relation to our traffic light diagram, fiddle behaviours to look out for are:
Growling, when a dog growls it is communicating that it is uncomfortable. Some of us take it personally, but we should not. When we hear a growl, we should think “thank you for letting me know”
Teeth Bearing, should be viewed the same way as growling.
Lip Licking, when the dog licks its lips, it can happen the once or repeatedly should the tension remain over an extended period of time.
Avoidance, when the dog avoids looking at what makes it uncomfortable, doesn’t know where to look or wants to leave a situation.
Excessive blinking, we often see excessive blinking, like a nervous twitch.
Yawning, dogs do yawn when tired just like us, but that is usual when they have just woken or are settling down. Out of this context, a yawn from a dog is often a signal that they are uncomfortable.
·Shaking it off, after a dog has just been through something they found stressful, they will often shake off all of that built up tension.
Paw Lift, when a dog is unsure, or hasn’t made up its mind, some will often lift their paw until they have made their decision. In some circumstances, if the dog is in a situation it is uncomfortable in, this can be taken as a sign that the dog is trying to deal with the situation and is still processing it all.
Scratching, in normal circumstances this is an indicator the dog has an itch. In a situation your dog is uncomfortable, your dog may begin to scratch itself as a default comfort behaviour.
Sneezing, as an extra outlet of energy dogs often sneeze, this can happen at times of happiness and stress.
Sniffing, when a dog wants to avoid a situation it will look for something else to do, in an uncomfortable situation some dogs go to comfort behaviour is go and sniff somewhere else.
Panting, often seen because of the dog becomes uncomfortable.
Hyper Vigilance, is when the dog cannot drop their guard and are on high alert even though there is no threat present.
Pacing and restlessness, when a dog cannot seem to settle, they are constantly on the move.
Whale Eye, where we can see the whites of their eyes.
Body Tension, if the body language of the dog is tense, then it could be a sign they are uncomfortable.
We also often see behaviours displacement behaviours and behaviours directed onto others that can be signs that are dogs are feeling uncomfortable.
Play, when a dog greets another dog but does not know how to respond to the individual, it may try to appease the situation with play. Play is both something that is suggesting it is non threatening and something the dog has enjoyed doing in the past. This may not be appropriate to the situation though, if the other individual wants space, doesn’t know the dog very well or prefers calmer interactions then it is important not to let the dog that is trying to play agitate the other individual, despite its good intentions.
Mouthing, some dogs mouth our hands and arms to the point that it is uncomfortable. This is often a sign that the dog is overstimulated and overwhelmed.
Rolling onto their back, we often find this behaviour cute, and in some cases it can be a sign that the dog simply loves belly rubs, but in other cases this is a dog trying to appease the situation or individual due to mild stress. When our puppy does this it is important to allow them to stand back up and calm them down before adding any more stimulation to the situation.
Ecessive licking, dogs lick for a few reasons, but fast paced licking of other dogs or ourselves, often aimed at the face, is often an appeasement gesture being made because the dog is slightly unsure of the situation.
Clinginess, we are often sources of comfort to our dogs. In moments of stress, they seek comfort more than any other time and so may not be willing or able to leave your side.
Attention Seeking, such as barking, pawing at the owner or dropping toys at our feet can be signs that our dogs are uncomfortable and need some help at that moment in time.
Mounting, as discussed last week, mounting or humping is often a result of the dog feeling uncomfortable.
When our dogs are displaying fiddle behaviours, it is important to recognise this as a moment of stress and do what we can to reduce the stress levels of the dog. It could be that the dog needs a something to make being in this situation more positive such as affection, treats or to chew something. If the dog cannot be pacified and either remains as stressed or gets worse then we need to increase the distance from what it is that is stressing the dog out, by either taking the point of stress away from the dog or the dog away from the point of stress.
We should not keep the dog in this situation with the intention that it will “get used to it” the longer the dog is feeling stressed about something, the stronger the negative association we will build.
We must not reprimand a dog that displays fiddle behaviours such as growling or bearing teeth. Many of us understand that these behaviours are unwanted, but they are always driven by stress fear and anxiety which is not a choice. The dog would rather not feel stressed than be communicating that it is stressed. These are warnings from the dog, and reprimanding them may teach the dog that it is not allowed to warn. The most dangerous dogs in the world are the ones that do not warn!!
Dogs display happy gestures as well, a play bow, where the dog drops its chest with its front legs stretched forwards is often an invite to another to play. Grooming of others is often a sign that a dog is comfortable with another, this behaviour builds a bond with the other and is a display of affection.
Eye contact in the dog world is important but should be understood. Dogs are one of a few animals on earth that can learn to read a human’s facial expressions and eye contact in terms of how it affects them. Intense eye contact can be confrontational, just like with us. Soft eye contact between two individuals that know each other can reassure an individual. A lot of dogs find eye contact intimidating and so strong eye contact with an individual you have just met can cause them to feel very uncomfortable. Avoiding staring at a dog that you are not familiar with, will help it become comfortable with you. Old school dominance techniques would suggest that you must never be the one to break eye contact with your dog because they will assume you have backed down, this is false information.