What Your Dog Is Saying: De-Coding Doggie Body Language

By Nicole Stewart

Remember the TV show Three’s Company, where every episode revolved around a miscommunication between roommates, neighbors, and friends? That’s a little bit what human/animal relationships are like. Jack Tripper—the only male in the apartment—always seemed to think very differently than his two female roommates. Similarly, dogs and people live together but speak completely different languages, which can result in confusion and frustration from both sides. 

People can sometimes talk in circles or talk too much, whereas dogs are very deliberate with their communication. They use their whole bodies—from nose to tail—with intention. Often it’s not until a dog has snarled, growled, or bitten that we notice their discomfort, but it’s likely they were displaying signs of stress or conflict all along. As soon as you learn to “read” your dog you can respond to his needs more quickly and stay ahead of potentially dangerous situations.

Some body language is fairly clear to understand. For example:






However, a dog can use more subtle body language to deflect conflict, take charge of a situation, or self-soothe that we might miss if we don’t know what to look for. Here are a few behaviors that may not always mean what you think they do: 



Of course, dogs use their tails to communicate a lot—sometimes uncontrollably! However, this popular action is often misinterpreted. A wagging tail does not always mean that a dog is friendly or happy. Look closely at how the dog’s tail is wagging. Is it fast and straight up? Is it low and very slow? Or is it loose and casual? A wagging tail can simply mean a dog is amped up and ready to handle what comes next, or that he is gathering information. 

It’s also essential to look at what the rest of the dog’s body is doing. Are the ears up and forward or clamped back against their head? Is the hair on their back spiked up? Overall, does their body seem loose and wiggly or stiff and rigid?

You might be thinking, “What does my dog have to be stressed out about? She gets food, belly rubs, exercise, love, and more couch space than me!” It’s true, many of our dogs have it pretty darn good, but remember, they only know what’s happening in the moment. They can’t always predict your next move. And the truth is, living in a human household with human expectations can be stressful for our four-legged furry friends.

A perfect example of this is the hug. As disappointing as it may be to hear, most dogs naturally do not like to be hugged. In the canine world, heart-to-heart contact is fairly confrontational. Dogs prefer side-to-side and butt-to-nose interactions, but many of them tolerate our hugs as expressions of love. Next time you go in for a long embrace, tune into your dog’s body language and discover how she really feels. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll need to quit the hugs and cuddles—some canines crave contact and are perfectly comfortable being hugged. Just make sure it’s what your dog wants.

One of the biggest gifts we can give our four-legged companions is to take a moment to “listen” to them, understanding that they come to us with their own set of social rules and agreements. Our animals can be one of our greatest sources of joy, and they deserve to be heard—in all the unique ways they communicate with us.

Nicole Stewart strongly believes that dog training is as much about the people as it is about the dogs. Her first introduction to training came after an inspiring meeting with Paul Owens, co-author of The ‘Original’ Dog Whisperer. After studying with and working for Owens she furthered her education by attending various conferences throughout the country, which she continues to do today. In 2010, Nicole joined AnimalSense Canine Training and Behavior, Inc. as the Director of Training.


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