Understanding Your Dog’s Body Language & The Subtle Cues They Give
Communicating with our canine friends is a give-and-take: we give them love, take care of their needs, and in return, they offer unconditional companionship. And yet, as pet parents, we’ve probably all said, “If only my dog could talk!” What more would you be able to get out of your relationship with your dog if he could speak your language?
Years ago, the TV sitcom Lassie shed light on the unique personalities that dogs have and the complex ways in which they communicate with their humans. It seemed almost magical - just by barking, Lassie conveyed everything her owners needed to know if there was trouble.
But, guess what?
There’s a lot more to your dog’s communication skills than just barking and whining. Recognizing and understanding his or her body language—their nonverbal signals and cues—can give you a lot of useful information that will not only make your relationship more dynamic but will strengthen your own ability to be a responsible pet parent.
At Pet Waggin’ Pet Care, we want our clients to get the most out of their relationships with their pets. That’s why we’re so grateful to have a dog trainer to help us understand the subtle clues our dogs give us.
Here is your guide to understanding your dog’s subtle body language cues:
In “Dog Speak,” yawning is much more than just a signal that it’s time for a nap: yawning is a signal to your pup’s brain to release calming chemicals and it is his attempt to self-soothe. To understand what’s going on when your pup is yawning, it’s best to look at the context of the situation. When training your pup, for instance, yawning could actually mean that your pup is running out of patience. If your dog yawns during a training session, he could be signaling to you that he is frustrated or needs a mental break. To show that you understand, we recommend taking a break and focusing on shorter training sessions rather than one long one.
Yawning can also indicate anxiety, stress, or anticipation. If your dog yawns repeatedly at the vet, that’s his way of dealing with his anxiety. They may even yawn when they’re anticipating something fun, like a trip to the dog park—that’s the way he is managing his happiness!
And when a yawn is simply a yawn, he is probably relaxed and comfortable, like in his own bed. If he’s in your bed, give yourself a good stretch and treat him to a warm cuddle!
2. Lip Licking
Just like with yawning, it’s best to think about the situation when you see your dog licking his lips. If your pup has already been fed, or there’s no food around, chances are he is trying to communicate something different to you! Lip Licking is also considered a “calming signal” and can be a warning that your dog is reaching a stress threshold, which can result in aggressive behavior. In some situations, you may want to proceed with caution or change your approach.
Lip lickingis also an appeasement gesture: rather than respond aggressively, dogs use these behaviors to appease the human or animal who is frightening them—to submit to the situation or give a non-confrontational response. For instance, if you come home to find that your pup had an accident in the house, he might actually be confused when you exhibit frustration or disappointment. Still, he wants you to know that he isn’t a threat. (Of course, we only use positive reinforcement training, and we recommend that you do as well!)
Another very important reason for excessive lip licking is that his issue may be health-related. Keep an eye out for signs of illness in your pup or consult your vet if you are noticing any other unusual signs or behavior.
3. Whale Eye
Ruh-roh! If your dog is showing the whites of his eyes, (averting his head slightly while keeping his eye fixed on a perceived threat), he is giving off a warning signal. Whale eyes are typically accompanied by other clues to help you understand what exactly your dog is feeling. Freezing up and growling while demonstrating whale eyes are obvious signs that your dog is stressed and maybe even fearful. Your dog is on the defense, and for some pets, that might even mean becoming aggressive. You should back off and give your pup his space until it is safe to approach and remedy the situation.
Most socialized and house-trained pups exhibiting whale eyes may not become aggressive, but you still need to understand his discomfort. He or she might not like what’s going on—not all dogs want to be hugged or petted in an area even if they are friendly! If your dog is exhibiting whale eyes at the vet or groomer, he may not be enjoying the experience and unless he’s demonstrating signs of aggression, there should be no reason to worry. And if your pup is exhibiting whale eyes around other people or animals, it’s best to gently coax and lead them away until they are in a space where they feel safe.
Regardless of the situation, never respond to your dog’s warning signals with scolding or negativity. Whale eye is simply one of many ways your dog is expressing his need for respect and boundaries.
4. Tail Wagging and Movement
At times, you’ve probably noticed that your dog is moving his tail when there are otherwise no signs of excitement or happiness. Tail movement is one of the most complex ways that your pup communicates and has a variety of meanings depending on the tail position, direction, and speed.
When alert, your pup will stand with his ears up and his tail raised, signaling that he is watchful, ready, and perhaps even agitated depending on the situation. If your pup suddenly stops wagging and seems to freeze up, it might be another appeasement gesture—he wants to divert a perceived threat but will likely not be aggressive.
Most pet parents know that their dog is scared when his tail is between his legs. But did you know that this position is to reduce scent secretion from his anal glands? By doing so, your dog feels he can go undetected by perceived threats. Therefore, if your dog’s tail is raised high and he seems agitated, he is more likely to turn aggressive—he is boldly releasing his scent to assert his strength!
A friendly dog may wiggle his hips while wagging his tail; his wagging speed conveys his excitement. On the other hand, an insecure pup may only slightly wag his tail when meeting a new friend (human or otherwise). He is conveying some hesitance but is otherwise not aggressive.
5. Resource Guarding
Dogs can be quite territorial. So territorial, in fact, that they have methods of communicating designed specifically to protect their resources from other people and pets. Many people think of resources only in terms of food or treats, but to your pup, resources can be many things: toys, affection, people, sibling dogs, and even an area like a couch or room.
This behavior is totally normal in pups, but there are a few things pet parents should know about resource guarding, especially when it can become aggressive.
Usually, when a dog exhibits resource guarding to another animal by growling, the other dog will back down. Dogs understand each other and they understand each other’s territorial inclinations. However, if dogs fight over these resources or if the more timid animal is stressed, it’s best to separate them and let them enjoy their own prizes in separate spaces. Another alternative is to remove the item that is causing strife when the two dogs are together.
For short-term management, taking away triggers may keep everyone safe but it is not a long-term solution. Addressing resource guarding requires long, complex, and consistent training protocols and is best handled with professional guidance. Even with the best intention, pet parents are at risk of exacerbating the problem without the help of a professional trainer.
Needless to say, canines are complex creatures, and that’s why we at Pet Waggin’ love them so much! We’re always happy for the opportunity to develop relationships with your pups, and we go the extra mile when taking care of them so that they know that they are not only understood but respected.
We consult our dog trainer regularly so that we can read your dog’s body language and take care of all their needs when we stop by. In fact, our dog trainer can help you communicate with your pups, too! Communication requires training, patience, and practice, so check out our dog training services to get started!