Reading Canine Body Language

Body language is the dog’s primary form of communication.  Understanding what message they are conveying and the ability to communicate with them is invaluable.  Often times, dogs are simply calmer just because they are aware that they can communicate with someone fluent in their language.


Space/Pressure; Canines in general are very aware of space, changes in space, tiny motions, and pressure in the form of decreasing/increasing space.  Some breeds (herding for example) and individual dogs are more space sensitive than others.  Simply moving toward a dog can cause them to back up while stepping back can cause them to step forward.  (This should be done cautiously with dogs showing signs of stress, aggression or tension) Space/pressure can be helpful when trying to get a dog in or out of a crate or yard, to catch a loose dog, walk a dog toward an area, or discourage certain behaviors such as jumping.  Subtlety is the key here, if the movements are relevant, they don’t need to be dramatic.  In fact, dramatic displays can be taken as silly or playful.  Simply shifting your weight can have a huge impact on a dog’s behavior.


The direction of your body, specifically feet and face, can dramatically change the dog’s perception of your behavior.  Professionals who train herding dogs have said that the best way to indicate the direction they want the dog to move in is to simply use their feet to point!

The politest of dogs tend to approach from the side, avoiding direct eye contact.  Face-to-face and chest-to-chest greetings are confrontational.  Direct head-on approaches can be threatening to dogs, as well as leaning over a dog straight on.  Having hands on both sides of a dog’s body or face can elicit a defensive response as the dog feels restrained.


Signs Of Aggression; Almost every dog shows a series of behaviors before they actually go to bite.  Usually, these behaviors are very subtle changes in body language, but they are clearly understood by other dogs.  We humans have to be looking for these behaviors in order to prevent fights and bites to other dogs and humans.  When looking for aggression, you must look at the dog’s whole body.  When a dog is aggressive, his entire body typically stiffens and all of his weight is shifted forward.  More obvious signs such as growling and showing teeth may or may not accompany this yet.  An intense, hard stare, closed mouth, and very stiff body is an ominous sign!  If the dog is growling at this point, it is usually very low and continuous.  If you can hear it and there is no barrier between you, you are way too close.  Any sudden movement can trigger a bite, even backing up or turning around.


Signs of Friendliness; tail and whole-body wagging in a silly, loose manner.  Bouncing back and forth, mouth open and relaxed.  Lack of tension in face, tongue rolling out, normal blink rate and breathing.


A word on Tail Wagging; tail wagging isn’t always friendly or happy, it only means the dog is willing to communicate.  Usually, a low, relaxed, widely wagging tail indicates a relaxed, happy mood.  A whole-body wag with a circular swing is indicative of more excitement but generally friendly.  A high tail, arched over the back, quickly and stiffly switching back and forth (flagging) usually means agitation or conflict.  Rarely, some dogs may wag their tail in happy anticipation of a conflict, so they are happy, but not necessarily friendly.  This is rare, especially toward humans, but you should be aware.  Sometimes this can be seen with predation, and it isn’t purposeful communication but an internal response.

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