How to Read Dog Body Language

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Information gathering is key when I work with a client and his or her dog. One component of information gathering is to observe the dog’s body language and the client’s body language. Deciphering body language can be tricky, but is very important.
Dogs rely on body language to “read” both us and other dogs. For example, when dogs are trying to look threatening to another dog, they show their teeth. By the same token, when we approach a dog, we usually smile, which to us means “we are kind and will not hurt you.” But in dog language, it means “I am showing you my teeth as a warning to leave me alone.” It’s a wonder we ever make friends with our dogs. For my next few articles, I will explain some of the body language cues that dogs give and how to interpret them.  In each of the explanations below, I will assume that you and the dog are strangers. Our own dogs may not show as many body language signs to us because the trust factor is already established. I will address dog-to-dog body language in a future article.
The Tail Wag
Let’s start with the most common misconception about dogs. “If the tail is wagging, they are happy.” This is not always true and can put you at risk if you approach a dog with the wrong tail wag. There are three basic positions of the tail wag. The mid-range relaxed tail wag is a good indication that your approach is being well received. A high, stiff, slower wag should be a warning to you that the dog is on high alert. A lowered, slow-moving or tucked tail is a good indicator that the dog is wary or afraid. For both the high-alert and wary tail wag, you should approach with caution.
Eye Contact and Personal Space
When you know that the dog should be approached with caution because of his tail, look at what the dog is telling you with his eyes. See if the dog is making eye contact with you. If the dog is looking you straight in the eye, beware. If the eyes have a “softened” look to them (this would be on the mid-relaxed tail dog), or if the dog will not make direct eye contact, you can be pretty sure that your approach will be welcomed. The dog with the “on alert” tail may have “whale eye,” which will look like a bulging, staring eye. The rim of the eye may also appear to be red.  Personal space seems tricky because you are trying to approach the dog, but you still want to keep the dog at ease. Most people approach a dog full-on with a frontal approach and bend over to pet while they are doing it. This can be very intimidating to a dog that you don’t know. It would be like me, a stranger, approaching you at the mall straight on and ending up two inches from your face. And remember that when dogs are meeting each other and want to intimidate, they put their heads over the other dogs’ shoulders – much like we do when bending down to pet. The safer way to approach a dog is with your side to the dog’s face. Approach slowly and without direct eye contact.
Ears are an important part of dogs’ body language. Softened, relaxed ears are a good sign that your approach is being well-received. Ears standing straight up or with a forward tilt mean high alert. Ears that are flat back onto the head is sign that the dog is not sure of you, or frightened. Keep your guard up when approaching a dog with flat back ears. More dogs bite because of fear rather than anger. While it is harder to judge what the ears are telling you if the ears are cropped, they still tell a story. Watch for twitching ears, the attempt to flatten, or a heightened color to the interior resulting from the heightened blood flow.
Mouth and Vocals
We’re most familiar with these signs. Showing teeth, growling, snapping, and barking all look and sound vicious. You should always play it safe when you come across a dog that curls its lip, shows its teeth, or growls at you. Contrary to what many people think, growling is really a good thing. It is a warning. If you were to correct or “train” the dog not to growl, you would no longer have the warning that the dog is about to bite. Because of the warning, you can take appropriate action before the bite occurs. If you approach a dog with an open, relaxed mouth (tongue hanging out) you can feel pretty confident about approaching. Barking is another way dogs communicate with us. You can probably tell in your own dog the difference in barks: play, warning, or anxiousness. Be wary of approaching a dog that is barking in a lower pitch (coming from deep in the chest) or one that is totally silent. Pay attention to other body signals if there is no bark.

General Body

Hackles: Hackles are the line of hair standing on end from the neck to the end of the body – sometimes to the end of the tail. Generally, raising of hackles means that dog is in a heightened state of agitation. Mostly you will see them when a dog is warning – making themselves “bigger.”
Stature: Calm dogs are balanced between all four feet. Assertive or angry dogs tend to lean forward. This is not the same as lunging, where the front legs are usually off of the ground. Wary or afraid dogs tend to lean more on their hind legs. Insecure or shy dogs will shrink into themselves, making them look “smaller” and less threatening.
These are just a few body language clues to watch for. Some of them happen very quickly. You should always be careful when approaching an unknown dog and remember that standing still is usually the best option until you can assess the situation.
Do you have any questions about dog body language? Let me know in the comments!
Terry Meeks is a dog trainer, APDT Member an CGC Evaluator in Pinellas County, Florida.  Find Four on the Floor Dog Training at and on Facebook.

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