We love dogs but unfortunately, a lot of things people do naturally can be upsetting to dogs. A dog's most natural way of communicating is through their body language. Being aware of body language can also help you to understand if the things you're doing are accidentally upsetting to dogs. By learning more about canine body language, you can help your dog, and other dogs that you meet to feel safer and more comfortable.
Signs that dogs are happy
The most important body language sign to watch for that indicates that a dog is happy is looking soft and relaxed. A dog's ears will be relaxed (though, this will be different depending on the dog's breed). Although many people assume a wagging tail means they are looking at a happy dog, that isn't always the case. The wagging of a dog's tail can mean anything from happy to very uncomfortable and at risk of biting. A relaxed tail wag is a slow side-to-side wag that makes the dog's whole body appear to wag or their tail also wags in a circle. On the other hand, a tight fast wag may mean that the dog is alert but uncomfortable. Other physical signs that a dog is happy are shown through play bows and soft facial expressions.
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Signs that dogs are unhappy
There are a variety of body language signs to be aware of that may indicate a dog is stressed or uncomfortable with a situation. Body language to watch out for includes: "whale eye" where a dog has opened their eyes very wide and the white is showing, and ears being tucked back or pressed down into their head. Dogs who are uncomfortable or stressed may also tuck their tails, and have their hackles raised. Unhappy or uncomfortable dogs may also start yawning, panting (when it's not hot), lip licking, avoiding eye contact, or cowering. All of these are signs that a dog may be stressed, uncomfortable, and in need of some space. Some dogs who are uncomfortable may try to get away, while others may respond by barking and lunging to keep whatever is bothering them from getting closer to them.
Things we do that dogs don’t like
Hugging is a common way that people show affection, but it's not something that dogs enjoy. Although some dogs are tolerant about being hugged by their people, in general, it's not something dogs enjoy. Hugging makes dogs feel trapped, restrained, or in some cases even threatened. It's especially important not to hug dogs you are just meeting.
Not letting dogs sniff
Dogs have an incredible sense of smell and use their nose to explore and understand the world around them. A common thing that people do that frustrates dogs is not giving them ample opportunity to sniff and explore while on walks. Rushing your dog along while on a walk, (while sometimes necessary) decreases a dog's ability to enjoy their walk, and take in information about the world around them.
Change of routine
Dogs thrive on consistency and having daily routines. Although some people enjoy having the chance to shake up their own daily routines, dogs aren't such a fan of that. Big changes in the household routine like kids going back to school, a new work schedule, or a new person joining the family can have a big impact on dogs. As much as possible, try to maintain a regular routine schedule for your dog especially during times of family change.
When greeting or training your own dog it's important not to lean over them. Looming or leaning over dogs can make them feel threatened or nervous. This can be an especially big challenge with small breed dogs who feel threatened by being leaned over and have a fear of being stepped on.
It can be tempting to reach out your hand to pet a dog right away, and the closest place to pet them is often on the top of their head. Just like dogs are threatened and uncomfortable by someone leaning over them, reaching a hand over a dog to pet them can feel threatening to them. It's better to let a dog approach you for pets, and then pet them. Each dog will have individual preferences for where they like to be pet, but the commonly enjoyed areas of the body for pets include under the chin and at the base of the tail.
Dogs are adorable and it can be tempting to want to look at every dog you see. Looking at dogs is fine but avoid making and maintaining eye contact with a dog. Making direct or staring eye contact is threatening and can put dogs on edge and make them react defensively. Because of this, it should be avoided, especially when meeting new dogs.
Your dog doesn't need to be friends with your family members, neighbors, random strangers you meet, nor do they need to make friends with other dogs. Forcing your dog to engage with other animals can make them feel anxious, uncomfortable, and defensive. People often force their dogs to engage with other animals or people to make them more "socialized". Forcing your dog to interact with others can lead to them being less social, and being more uncomfortable around people or other dogs.
Just like you probably would be alarmed if someone came running up to you waving their arms and trying to hug you, dogs also don't like being ambushed. You might be excited to see a cute dog, but it's important to be calm and measured if you intend to try and approach that dog. Always stay at a respectful distance and ask permission from the dog's humans' to approach and pet their dog. This will help both dogs and their owners to be more comfortable.
Reaching out to offer your hand
This is one of those things that many people were taught as children to do when meeting a new dog. Expanding your hand for a dog to sniff might feel like you're gently trying to greet them, but most dogs aren't a fan. Reaching towards a dog and getting into their space can make a dog feel threatened and make the dog think you are going to grab them. Instead, it's much better to let a dog approach you to sniff at their own pace instead of trying to rush or initiate the process.
Although dogs are our best friends, they like different interactions than we do. For example, we love hugs but most dogs hate them. In general, it's important for dogs to have as much autonomy as possible and allow them to choose when and how they physically interact with us. Watching a dog's body language can help you to understand if a dog likes what you are doing or if they feel uncomfortable.