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Understanding Your Dog's Body Language

PetSmart Catherine Thomas

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Dogs communicate with us through a variety of ways-not just barking and tail wagging. Dogs are complex and use their body to talk all the time. Here’s what yours might be trying to tell you: 

 “I’m stressed out and unsure of what’s going on.”

When a dog is stressed, you may notice him quivering, whining or even crying. He will probably have his ears back and pinned down against his head and might hold his mouth open to facilitate panting. You’ll also notice his tail is between his legs. 

"I’m anxious or worried.”

A dog in this state may lick her lips, pace or pant. Listen for her to whimper, bark (or both) repeatedly. Anxious or worried dogs are usually restless and in motion. The dog’s tail will be held lower than the rest of her body, and will be tucked between the back legs. Anxious or worried dogs won’t make eye contact directly, but will look away, to the side. Sometimes, the fur along the neck and back of a frightened or submissive dog will stand up too.

 “I’m confident and friendly.”

A confident dog prances with his tail, head and ears held high. His tail will probably also be wagging loosely (But keep in mind, tail wagging isn’t always a signal that a dog is happy—dominant or aggressive dogs may also wag their tails though the tail will probably be held higher and submissive or afraid dogs may hold their tails low while wagging them.). 

 “I’m scared.”

If a dog is fearful, his ears may be pulled back, the whites of his eyes will be visible and his head will be lowered. Some particularly frightful pups might even try to take cover behind your legs or under a piece of furniture.  

“I want to play!”

The classic play bow is seen when dogs lower their heads, put their rear ends in the air, and bend their front legs, “bowing” to another dog or even to you. A dog that wants to play may also swat at the air. 

“I’m in an aggressive mood.”

When a dog’s lips are curled up and she is snarling or barking, be cautious: these are signs of aggression. An aggressive dog’s hackles—the hair on her back (between her shoulder blades) and above her tail may also be raised. An aggressive dog will hold her ears back slightly, against her head. Her eyes may also be narrow and her body will probably be tensed. She may also growl or bark.

Learning to read and understand your dog’s body language takes time, but practice enough and you might find the process a fulfilling and beneficial one for both you and your pooch. The more you take note of your dog’s movements and note his corresponding moods, the easier it will be to send the correct signals to your pup.

Additional information from Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide Interpreting the Native Language of the Domestic Dog by Brenda Aloff

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