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Reading Your Dog’s Body Language

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two dogs meeting for the first time at the dog park

Have you ever wondered what it means when your dog’s ears move forward or lay back? Learning how to read your dog’s body language can be a valuable and interesting resource. By better understanding what your dog is expressing, you can more effectively recognize their mood, needs, and emotions.

Reading Your Dog’s Body Language

When it comes to communicating with your dog, there is an obvious language barrier, though sometimes it really feels like you know what each other is saying. Although it would be the best superpower to be able to talk with our canine friends, the reality is that we have to find different ways to communicate.

Just as dog parents use obedience commands and fun tricks to relay what they want their dog to do, dogs use their body language to communicate to others—whether that be other dogs or people. A dog’s body language can simultaneously reveal many things at once, such as how they feel and whether they are comfortable in their current environment.

Having spent any time around a dog, you are most likely familiar with some of the more well-recognized body language signs (i.e., a jumping dog is excited or a wagging tail means they are happy). Still, a dog can relay far more subtle signals that people could easily miss.

What Does It Mean If Your Dog’s Ears Are Back?

There are a few reasons why your pup’s ears may be back. For starters, depending on the shape and structure of their ears, your dog could be content and relaxed. Big, floppy ears rest differently than tall, pointed ones. Usually, by looking at your dog’s ears plus the rest of their body language, you’ll quickly be able to tell if they are relaxed.

A dog may also have their ears back if they become leery or nervous. What makes a dog nervous can vary significantly from one pup to another, so it’s helpful to be mindful of what your pal prefers to avoid. Keeping your dog out of situations that make them uncomfortable can be beneficial since nervousness can sometimes lead to fear or even aggression—two more emotions that cause dogs’ ears to go back.

In some cases, if a dog has a particularly bad ear infection or if they scratch their ear too much and cause an injury, they may keep their ear pulled close to their head. This is not a common issue, and most ear infection cases are caught long before they become a serious problem.

Of course, your dog’s ears could also be back because they are trying to listen better. Whether it’s an unusual sound that has caught their attention, someone calling their name from a few rooms away, or you speaking to them in puppy talk, your pal may just be adjusting their ears so that they can decipher the noise.

What Does It Mean When a Dog’s Tail Is Down?

The position of a dog’s tail can mean many things, but it’s first most helpful to understand where their tail naturally rests. For instance, the Shiba Inu’s tail naturally rests curled onto the back, while a Golden Retriever’s tail often rests at a lower angle. The tail body language can differ based on its length and structure.

To fully interpret why your dog has lowered their tail, examine the rest of their body language. Sometimes when a dog’s tail goes down, it simply means that they are relaxed, content, or tired. In this instance, the tail should still seem to follow the spine’s natural curve and not be tensed. However, if your dog’s tail appears to be low but stiff or they begin to tuck their tail between their legs, this could indicate a stronger emotion.

Many pups tuck their tail between their legs whenever they are in trouble. Similarly, if your dog feels guilty, fearful, or stressed, these could each cause them to keep their tail in a lower, unnatural position.

It is also possible that your dog’s tail is at a lower angle due to a medical condition or injury. Known as acute caudal myopathy, but often referred to as limber tail syndrome or swimmer’s tail, this condition results in your dog’s tail appearing limp, resting at an odd, low angle, and not wagging. Though more common in working and hunting dogs, this condition can still occur in any dog breed. It can often be brought on after a long and vigorous playtime, an active hunting day, or a long swimming session.

Limber tail will most often appear within the next 24 hours after the heavy activity. Though it may cause some pain and discomfort to your pup, your veterinarian can help keep them comfortable until they are fully healed, generally within a few days. If the problem persists, don’t hesitate to schedule another appointment with your veterinarian to ensure there isn’t a different underlying health issue.

Do Dogs Wag Their Tails When Happy

Yes, dogs wag their tails when they are happy. They also will wag their tails when they are feeling playful or excited. Depending on your dog and their emotions, the speed of their tail can change from a slow back and forth to fast-moving.

Like any other part of a dog’s body language, a wagging tail can mean a few different things. For instance, if your dog is slightly wagging their tail, but it’s incredibly low or between their legs, this could signify nervousness. If their tail is much higher than normal, this could signify that your dog is extra excited.

On the other hand, if your dog’s tail is higher than usual, but it isn’t wagging, this could mean that something has piqued your pup’s interest, and they are curious. Some people refer to this as “point.”

Why Does My Dog’s Fur Stand Up?

The fur on the back of your dog’s neck and back (running along the spine) can stand up for many reasons: fear, aggression, anxiety, or excitement.

An anxiety trigger for many canines is meeting other dogs and people. If you notice your dog’s hair raise whenever they are being socialized, and the rest of their body language steers toward nervousness, you can be reassured that this isn’t coming from a place of aggression. However, without working through your pup’s anxiety-inducing issues, it’s possible that this could one day lead to more aggression-related problems.

When your dog’s body language switches over to aggression, you can notice a change in their other mannerisms. They will have a stiffer posture with an upright, rigid tail. They may start barking, growling, or lunging toward the other dog. Their ears will most likely be back and down closer to their head. You may also notice a more serious look in their eyes.

Though it isn’t as well known, raised hair on a dog’s back can also signify extreme excitement. Some pups can barely control themselves when it comes time to meet a fellow canine friend—they can’t wait to play. They may mean well, but this can be a little overwhelming to some other dogs and may cause them to be hesitant about meeting your pup.

You can tell the difference between your dog raising their hair out of aggression or excitement by observing the rest of your pup’s body language. An excited and happy dog may bark or whine, pull on their leash, have ears forward, and a high, wagging tail.

Dogs can still feel stressed or anxious in their own homes—separation anxiety is relatively common in dogs. Learn about the common signs and treatment options.

Do Dogs Show Emotions With Their Mouth?

Another major part of reading a dog’s body language is to look at their mouth. When a dog feels comfortable in their environment, chances are their mouth will be soft and relaxed. Some dogs may even appear to have a smile or grin on their face. Whenever a dog’s mouth is completely open or their tongue is hanging out, they are trying to cool themselves off by panting.

If a dog feels more anxious or unsure about a situation, their mouth may stay in a tense, closed position. Some pups may pull their lips back or up at the corners without exposing any teeth. Dogs who feel uncertain about their surroundings may refuse to open their mouth for any toy or piece of food.

In a more extreme situation, your dog may even curl their lip and show their teeth. Except for a few breeds who make this face when they are smiling, a dog curling their lip is most commonly associated with aggression. This facial expression is sometimes accompanied by a snarl or bark and other signs of aggressive body language.

Though each dog will react differently whenever they feel uncomfortable, and the body language of their mouth can also vary with breeds, you might notice that some dogs will communicate their emotions through their tongue. During a moment of stress or anger, it’s not unusual for dogs to lick their lips or continuously bring their tongue in and out of their mouth.

Do Dogs Yawn When Stressed?

Yes, dogs can yawn when they are stressed. Some dog behaviorists believe that yawning is a way for pups to calm themselves when they feel nervous or anxious. This is similar to self-soothing habits people have, such as twiddling their fingers.

Many situations could cause your dog to feel more stressed, such as visiting the veterinarians, having guests in the house, interacting with a child, and being in a loud and chaotic environment.

Beyond being stressed, dogs may also yawn whenever they are waking up, falling asleep, or feeling bored—similar to when people yawn.

These individual signals can give you insight into how your dog is feeling and what they are trying to say. In many instances, it’s essential that you piece together multiple body signs. By looking at your dog’s body language as a whole, you’ll be able to assess your pup’s mood and immediate needs.

tortoise shell kitten and shiba inu mix dog resting together

Can Cats Read Dog Body Language?

Yes, it is possible for cats and dogs to read each other’s body language. With that said, it can take some time for a cat and dog to become acquainted and comfortable with one another. For instance, when first interacting, a cat may hiss at the dog whenever they don’t want to play. Over time, your dog may be able to read your cat’s body language better without verbal communication being necessary.

The same can be true for your cat reading your dog’s body language. Over time, your cat can recognize when the dog is being playful versus when they want their space. Learning to understand one another and cohabitate can take some time, and this type of relationship is often most seamless when the cat and dog are introduced to one another at a young age and grow up together.

How Do Dogs Read Human Body Language?

Dogs are able to read human body language quite effectively—it’s rather impressive. Between our facial expressions, hand gestures, tone of voice, and overall demeanor, most dogs can decipher whether we are feeling happy, angry, or upset. Since our dogs spend so much time with us, they may even begin reflecting on how we feel. If you become anxious in a social setting, your dog might as well, but if you become more excited and start jumping around, your dog may begin showing signs of excitement too.

Besides dealing with your pup, body language is also useful when meeting a new dog. Try not to make any fast or sudden movements and allow the dog to approach you first. As they become more comfortable, you may reach your hand out and see if they are okay with you petting them.

With smaller dogs, it may be incredibly tempting to crouch over them, pull them into a hug, or pick them up, but a dog could interpret this body language as coming on too strong, and it can make them uncomfortable. The same can be said for strong, unbreaking eye contact. Although when people communicate with each other, eye contact is seen as a positive thing, since the person is giving you their attention, in the canine world, a dog (that you are unfamiliar with) could read unbreaking eye contact as a challenge or threat.

Learning more about a dog’s body language can be beneficial anytime you or your dog are interacting with another dog—it’s the canine version of reading the room. For example, though your pup may be completely relaxed at a dog park, you may notice one of the other dogs expressing specific body language, like a lowered tail, flat ears, or raised hair. This could be a good indicator for you to have your dog give the pup some space.

Although most dog parents are in-tune with their pup’s unique behaviors, there’s always more to learn about our canine friends. You never know when a new environment or situation could have your dog acting differently than normal, perhaps expressing themselves in a way you have never previously seen. In this case, it can be immensely helpful to be aware of what their body language means, allowing you to adapt quickly and give your pup what they need.

The information presented in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute or substitute for the advice of your veterinarian.


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