Since dogs don’t speak human (and they don’t wear mood rings), it can sometimes be difficult to tell exactly what you pup is saying. Much of the information they convey is through body language, specifically through facial expressions and body postures.
Because behavior can be interpreted differently by different people, it is important to view it objectively and pay attention to what the dog’s face and entire body are doing. Interpretations can vary depending on the context. And, just as humans can be excited and nervous at the same time, dogs can show conflicting signals too.
In order to observe body language in context, consider the following: the situation, body language signals, and the body language expressed by all parts of the dog’s body.
Body language changes based on feedback from the environment and can shift in a split second.
When we have a better understanding of how dogs communicate, we’re more compassionate and patient. If we can look at their behaviors and body language and determine that the dog is likely anxious, afraid, or frustrated, for example, we can do something to help them feel better.
Dogs use the look away to communicate a variety of things. It’s usually a sign that your dog is feeling the need to communicate that they are not a threat or that they would rather not engage.
A stressful yawn is more prolonged, shaky, and intense than a sleepy yawn. A yawn may indicate anticipation or stress. It’s also a way of saying, “I’ve had enough and my patience is running out”.
A dog who feels conflicted about something may slow down and stop to sniff the environment. It’s a way to buy a little time while gathering some info. A dog may use this as a way to diffuse a situation that could be tense.
Depending on the rest of the dog’s body language and context, a paw lift is generally seen when the dog feels conflicted, anxious, or is anticipating something. “Loading. Please wait.”
Typically, a nose to tail shake off is a dog’s response to dealing with stress. Usually, “shake offs” happen after any taxing situation. Think of it as a full-body reset for the dog.
A dog that very suddenly scratches an ear or other body part may be experiencing some discomfort, confusion, or stress.
Some dogs check, lick, or even nibble their privates when they are stressed. It could also be a sign of a medical concern. Context and frequency are important clues.
A dog may stretch to relax stress-related tension in their muscles, just as humans do. Dogs also stretch as a way to moderate excited energy. Or it just may occur after sleeping or staying in one place for an extended period.
This type of licking looks very different than when you feed your dog a spoonful of peanut butter. It’s usually accompanied by yawning and whale eye. It may indicate stress or confusion.
The dog will avert their head slightly, but eyes will stay fixed on something or someone. May appear with lip-licking and yawning.
“Whale eye? Say goodbye.”
Dogs who deliberately blink and/or squint are signaling that they are mildly stressed or confused. Look for other signs of stress.
Do not confuse with soft blinking and be sure to rule out eye irritation.
A dog who is worried may lean forward as if ready for a fast get away. Weight shifted to the rear and cowering are also signs of discomfort The dog in this photo also has a tucked tail.
Dogs flatten their ears back or pin them against their head when feeling anxious or afraid. The more fearful the dog is, the farther back the ears may move.
A roll-over with a belly up may not be an invitation for a belly rub. If the dog’s body is tense and the mouth is closed, they are likely asking for space. Give it to them.
Facial tension can be a more nuanced stress signal. Dogs that are anxious often have ridged tension lines across the brow. This definitely depends on the breed and the context.
A dog who suddenly closes their mouth, as if holding their breath, may be indicating sudden stress. This typically means the dog needs to concentrate on a change in the environment.
When the hair on a dog’s back goes up, it’s usually a sign that the dog is aroused, fearful, startled, stimulated or excited in some way. As with the goose bumps humans get, dogs are not able to control it. If you see your dog’s hackles go up, determine the cause and make a plan for getting space.
When a dog’s tail is deliberately tucked between their legs, it conveys that the dog is no threat but is at least mildly uncomfortable. Give the dog space so they do not feel the need to move to defensive responses.
Sniffing the air and pacing around may indicate that a dog is feeling uncertain. They may have heard or seen a strange person or animal and are trying to gather more information. Because their sense of smell is so powerful, their noses are their way to answer any questions they may have about the world around them.
Fast, shallow panting not associated with heat or exercise can be stress-related. You typically see the muscles bunched up in the corners of the mouth, a “spatulate” tongue and other indications of tension.
Frantic jumping may be a way a dog communicates that they are anxious and confused about what’s expected of them. Assess the situation and give that dog some help.
Dogs that are stressed will sometimes “blow their coat” or develop sudden dandruff on their bodies. This often occurs around the chest or shoulders, particularly if the dog is wearing a harness.
A dog who is regularly scanning or acutely aware of their environment needs space and time to work things out. It’s best to give them that, without touching them or gently lead them to a “safer” area.
A dog who is restless, fidgeting, cannot seem to settle, and is constantly on the move may be stressed. Since this can also be a sign of physical discomfort or pain, it’s an important one to watch.
It could also be a toy parade! Context, context, context.
This dog’s direct eye contact and intense, fixed, glassy “cold” stare lets you know not to come any closer. “Continue doing what you are doing and there will be consequences.”
If a dog freezes and stands completely still, it means that they are experiencing a high level of unease. Approaching the food bowl this dog is guarding would definitely escalate the situation.
Dogs have sweat glands in their paw pads. If a dog’s feet are sweating enough for you to notice wet paw prints, it’s likely a sign of extreme stress. This dog needs help.
If your dog is showing any of the above signs of discomfort, thank them for the information and immediately help to get some distance from the scary or stressful thing. And in the long term, get in touch with us or another fear-free trainer who can help your dog learn to feel safe.
“Listen to your dog’s whisper so he doesn’t have to shout.”
— Chirag Patel, Domesticated Manners