Ever wish you could have a conversation with your dog? You already are, it just doesn't look like the type of conversation you would have with a friend, thanks to an obvious language barrier. While dogs can't use words to communicate things like what they need or their emotional state, they do communicate using canine body language, both with the humans around them and other dogs. You may already be familiar with body language basics, like wagging tails, but understanding the more subtle cues can help you become closer with your dog, and possibly prevent an avoidable accident caused by misread signals.
Dogs and communication
Being social animals, dogs communicate with one another in a number of ways. Sometimes, their voices are used to bark, yip, or howl to their fellow canines, but most of the time, they use their bodies to say what they need to say. A 2018 study states that, while what they mean to "say" toward each other cannot be exactly translated to what they're saying to us, dogs use their entire body to deliver signals for other dogs to decode, like asking for permission to eat, warning a dog to keep her distance, or even to simply express their adoration for another. Additionally, certain odors and functions, like urinating or defecating, send signals of their own and can be left as messages for other dogs to receive even if that dog is not around.
Deciphering dog body language
You're probably already familiar with some canine body language clues and their intended meaning, like when dogs wag their tails, which usually means that a they are happy (though not always, depending on context). Additionally, there are several ways that your dog is using his body to express himself, from his head to his feet, and all the way to the tip of his tail.
Just below the head and along the back of the neck all the way down the spine are a dog's hackles, which is made up of hair that's connected to muscles called arrector pili. Certain simului, like a loud noise, or a perceived threat, or even just anything that leads to excitement, triggers the muscles which cause the hair to stand up in what's known as "piloerection." Since raised hackles can indicate a number of emotions, some of them potentially dangerous, it's important to notice other body language clues your dog is sending — if raised hackles are paired with a focused stare, alerted ears, or growling, this is a clear sign that a dog is agitated and should not be approached.
A tucked tail is generally a submissive trait and is used to express fear or appeasement, while an upright tail can indicate that a dog is confident, playful, or possibly aroused. The speed at which the tail wags can say a lot as well — the slower the wag, the more relaxed and satisfied the dog is. One way dogs communicate to others is by making their bodies larger or smaller, depending on the situation, which is often done in part with the positioning of the tail.
What a dog’s facial expressions mean
In addition to the use of their tails, ears, and posture, you can tell a lot about what a dog is feeling based on her facial expressions, and even the positioning of her head. The first thing most people notice on any face are the eyes, which dogs use to express everything from guilt to discomfort and just about anything in between. One eye gesture dog's can sometimes exhibit is known as the "whale eye" which looks a lot like a side eye. Rather than expressing judgement, however, whale eyes are often shown when a dog is stressed or uncomfortable, and usually when they feel cornered or like they don't have enough personal space. A dog with her eyes slightly open is usually a stress signal or a submissive trait, while direct eye contact indicates intense focus, which doesn't always mean that the dog is displaying aggression or dominance, although it can sometimes, depending on the dog and the situation.
A dog will use her mouth for nearly everything, from eating to grooming to showing affection, and the position of the mouth is a good thing to notice when attempting to read a dog's body language. The ASPCA states that an open mouth with slightly upturned lips usually indicates a relaxed dog, while a closed mouth with lips pulled back is often the sign of fear, stress, or nervousness. If a dog is showing you her teeth it can mean dramatically different things — aggression, or submission. The way to decipher the two is to consider the rest of your dog's body language. An aggressive snarl is hard to mistake, but can sometimes be subtle, especially if a dog is guarding resources like food or territory. In addition to a raised lip and visible teeth, aggression in this case is usually signified by a stern or overall rigid look, and the presence of whale eye, in some cases. A submissive grin, as it's known, is just that, a sign of appeasement, often done in response to being scolded, or when begging for food or attention. A submissive grin is often accompanied by low ears, a wagging tail, and an overall crouched appearance.
Dogs' ears can tell quite a tale on their own as well, especially if they lay flat and close to the back of the neck, which American Veterinarian says can indicate uncertainty or worry. This usually isn't cause for alarm, as this move is done as more of a gesture of appeasement than one of warning, and can be seen expressed by more submissive dogs during play times with more assertive canines. Ears that stick up, or, in the case of floppy ear dogs, are lifted above the head, is usually seen on dogs who are alert and very aware of their surroundings.
Much like spoken language, a lot can be lost in translation for those who aren't fluent, and it's important to remember that there is no one assigned meaning to any movement. While some meanings are more easily read than others, like a snarling mouth, it's important to consider the overall demeanor and posture of a dog when attempting to understand what he's trying to say, for safety's sake. While dogs use their bodies to communicate with us, they are also reading our body and facial language in an attempt to understand what we may be trying to say, or at least, the energy we're projecting. To keep a dog at ease, Preventative Vet recommends always approaching slowly, offering your hand so he can get a whiff of your scent, and pet under the chin, rather than over the head, which can cause some dogs to become defensive.