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Reading a Dog’s Body Language

Updated: Nov 17, 2023

Can you read your dog's body language easily? What about other dogs you meet on walks? Here a few tips and tricks on what to focus on.

From a dog's perspective


When we think of dog body language what often comes to mind is a wagging tail and puppy eyes. It is no surprise, that lots of people struggle to differentiate between different physical signals from our furry friends.


Dogs are highly empathic and possess incredible noses, which enables them to pick up other dog's/human's body language and intentions within a few seconds. Through domestication, they adapted to humans and showed certain traits (like wagging tails) much more than their ancestor the wolf. This may be, because it was a natural selection advantage as generally, humans could understand these intentions better and found it cuter too!


Juliane Kaminski conducted a study with her team, where they pointed a number to each facial muscle of dogs (DogFACS, Dog Facial Action Coding System www.dogfacs.com). They noticed, that dogs from shelters who displayed 'puppy eyes' were rehomed quicker than those who displayed this less or not at all.

This means, that not only humans use facial mimics as a means of communication, also dogs use the subtle communication thanks to their facial muscles. So instead of just focusing on a dog's tail, the mimic is just as important if not even more as wagging tails don't always mean friendliness.


Why some dogs struggle


Some dogs may struggle to being read (physical appearance) by other dogs or to read other dogs (lack of socialisation in the very early stages of puppyhood). Factors which contribute to these errors of communication are changes in the facial appearance (think of short nosed dog breeds) and coat colours (black coated dogs). I often hear from my customers, that their dog doesn't get on well with black dogs or short nosed dogs and this is simply due to a lack of understanding of the subtle body language signals from different looking dogs. Again, seeing the world from a dog's perspective is crucial for understanding and improving behaviour.

Understand the signals of your own dog better


I am sure, that you are able to read your own dog's body language already much better than other dogs you meet on walks.

I would like to encourage you though, to look more into the details. Let's start with our own dogs to improve our reading skills further.


Take a step back and try to focus on one area at a time; lips, eyes, ears, tail, facial muscles, paws, body tension and gait.


What always helped me, is to imagine how my emotions impacted my body language (happy, angry, sad..).


Observations in different life situations - things to look for


Closely observe your dog's lips. Is your dog licking sideways (calming signal) whilst looking away? This means avoiding conflict. Do you notice smacking of the lips, grinding teeth and/or licking forward (stress or anxiety)?


How is the tail position? Upright (confidence)? Neutral (think low down as if your dog would go to bed)?


Is the tail relaxed wagging, are the eyes soft, the facial skin pulled back (as if the dog is smiling, happy)?


Is the tail tensed and facial muscles stirn (potential reactivity)?


Are the hackles up (emotional responses, like goosebumps)?


Are the paws tensed or relaxed?


Is the gait flowing or stiff and tensed? Is the tail tucked (fear or discomfort)?


Is the tail wagging to the left (unhappiness, fearfulness, tension) or to the right (happiness, comfort, relaxed)?


How is your dog's body language around other dogs? Is the tail up? Is the body relaxed? Is there intense eye contact? Is your dog looking away and tail tucked (advocate for your dog in this moment!)?


Write down your observations and if you are unsure email me flurina@canine-sense.co.uk


How do I know the other dog is friendly?


I will be honest with you - you will never know for sure. We can only assume.

I always look at the body language and energy of the dog and owner (!) to help me determine if the other dog is friendly.


The most important step I practise, is to not let my dogs say hello to other dog's whilst being on a lead. The lead creates a physical restriction where dogs cannot move freely and therefore may panic and react in a bad way towards other dogs and vice versa. Dogs need room to communicate (especially with dogs they have never met before).


Things I look for when meeting other dogs:


- body tension

- facial expression

- focus

- gait

- tail position

- toys (I avoid dogs who have a toy)

- interaction between dog and owner

- owner's concentration on the situation




2 Comments


Good information, thank you.

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Very helpful! Thank you, Flurina 🤗

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