Understanding what your dog is telling you

By Honor Coulter | behaviour

What is your dog telling you? 

Many of us talk to our dogs, but did you know they do ‘talk’ back to us? Not with words, of course, but their faces and bodies are always showing signals about how they feel and what they would like. Learning about what your dog is telling you means you can be a better companion, and understand their behaviour better so you can react straight away when things get challenging.

 Whilst we must look at the ‘whole’ dog, taking a step by step view of their individual body signals can be useful.

 Body movements can be deceptive. A wagging tail on your dog is not always a good sign. It can signal agitation or upset as well as happiness, so it is important to look at your dog’s facial expression and their other body signals as well. Some dogs are harder to ‘read’ than others, for example if they have been bred with excessive skin folds, or very long, fluffy ears, or a tail that is set high and curled forward. However, you can become the expert on your own dog and on what he is ‘saying’.

 What is the situation surrounding your dog? This will be the reason he reacts and is your clue to what he is saying. Is it new, noisy, competitive, or scary? Does your dog need a little more gentle introduction to these situations so that he feels more relaxed in future?

 Is your dog leaning away, with head lowered, ears back, eyes turned away? It may be that he telling you he is uncomfortable. He may attempt to retreat, and do allow this. He needs you to ‘listen’ to him.

 One of the most misinterpreted body signals is that of the ‘guilty’ or ‘puppy eyes’ look in a dog. This is not as it seems, and dogs who roll their eyes upwards with a lowered head, walking slowly with a tightly closed mouth are actually feeling very worried indeed. It is a shame that our canine friends aren’t better understood when they are telling us that they are unhappy.

 Alternatively, your dog might be staring hard, leaning forward, ears pricked sharply, with a very still, stiff body. This often means that your dog is highly stressed. He may be protecting something that he values, such as a toy or a tasty chew. Recognising these signs, which are all perfectly normal dog behaviours, is essential to prevent your dog becoming more stressed and even resorting to snapping or biting. If you see your dog showing these behaviours, then don’t get into a confrontation – move away so he calms down, and contact your Vet to ask for referral to a qualified behaviourst.

 When can we be sure our dog is happy? He will have a soft, gentle gaze, ears at their mid-point (not pointed forward or pinned back), and his mouth may be open and panting softly. His tail will be gently wagging, usually not carried high over his back. He may even wander towards a situation steadily, a sign of calm curiosity.

 Your dog is always communicating, so why not learn more about canine body signals and join in the conversation?