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Dog Body Language

A white west highland terrier with a stick in his mouth.

You may have heard the term “dog body language”, but what does it mean? To most people, dog body language means a snarl, growl, snap, or bite. The truth is dogs communicate with us long before they resort to those types of behaviors. So, having a better understanding of dog body language can have many benefits for you and your dog.

The Benefits of Understanding Dog Body Language

Relationship Building.

By better understanding dog body language, you will become more in tune with what you are seeing in your own dog. Consequently, you will be able to be an advocate for your dog. You’ll be better able to detect stress in your dog and help them manage the situation by making the stressful thing go away. Your dog will know that they can better rely on you in these situations, instead of allowing them to needlessly escalate.

Better Training Outcomes.

As a trainer, I have seen various examples over the years of dogs exhibiting body language during training sessions that are often misunderstood by the owner. People often assume that a dog not offering the requested behavior means the dog is being stubborn for example. There are several possible reasons why a dog may not give the requested cue during a session. For example, humans are often inconsistent in how they ask for cues and the dog may simply be confused about what is being asked of them. There could also be something going on in the training environment that is distracting the dog or creating stress for the dog. So, if you’re better able to read your dog in this type of situation you’ll be able to better provide the right environment and the training experience will be much more positive and effective for you and your dog.

Improved Safety and Security for Everyone.

Many people who are the recipient of or witness a bite by a dog later state, “There was no warning, the dog just bit”. This is rarely the case, rather, the dog most likely sent out several warnings that were missed by the human. Being able to read even the more subtle examples of dog body language gives people the opportunity to reduce the chances of a bite ever happening by responding much sooner.

A Better Lifetime Companion.

Just like with our human friends and family, the better that we can communicate with one another, the longer we will enjoy years of companionship. There are too many examples of miscommunication with dogs that escalate and lead to undesirable outcomes. This can include relinquishment of the dog, and sometimes worse. Clear communication starts with understanding what we are seeing and hearing, and this is a commitment to a long-term positive relationship.

Improved Socialization.

Whether you are socializing a new pup, bringing home a rescue dog, or working with a positive trainer to address existing behavioral issues, all these scenarios require you to better understand how to read your dog’s body language. In doing so, you will be able to read your dog better and know when your dog starts to show signs of stress, however minimal. You will be in tune with what works for your dog and what does not work for your dog. It will also give you clues as to what might stress your dog so you may address and improve it.

The Two Main Reasons Dogs Communicate

Dogs use communication to let us know two main things: how they are feeling vs. what they think we are feeling. In the former scenario, a dog may feel uncertain or downright stressed about something in their environment and are sending a message stating such. In the latter scenario, the dog is picking up stress from someone else and is trying to appease them. We have all seen the video of the dog who stole the dog biscuits and upon the owner’s return, exhibited a variety of signals such as lip licking, a submissive grin, crouching, squinting, etc. Many viewers assume the dog is saying, “I am sorry”, when in fact the dog is responding to the owner’s frustration and is trying to calm them down. Depending on the amount of time that has passed since the transgression occurred, the dog most likely doesn’t know why the owner is upset.

Examples of Dog Body Language

If you are just learning about dog body language, it helps to look at specific body parts first and then put them all together to understand what you’re seeing. There are several excellent resources on dog body language. This includes Dr. Sophia Yin’s Fear in Dogs Handout, which is an illustration of various stress signals in dogs. Another great resource is The Stress Escalation Ladder, developed by Turid Rugaas. This is an excellent representation of how most dogs start with very subtle body language and then escalate if the situation does not improve. Learning to read these examples will keep a dog from having to move up the ladder toward more extreme behaviors such as snapping and biting. An equivalent scenario for a human would be to have their partner respond more quickly, instead of having to escalate due to a lack of response!

How Can I Better Learn About Dog Body Language?

There are a variety of examples of dog body language. Google Dog Body Language and you will see numerous examples come up. Start by looking at one body part at a time and then practice putting them together. Look for examples in your dog, your friend’s dog, your neighbor’s, etc. There is no shortage of inappropriate examples of well-meaning parents video recording their kids with the family pet, who is clearly exhibiting stress signals, and yet the situation continues in the name of entertainment. These behaviors put both children and pets in danger.

If you are reading this article, you have hopefully learned at least one new thing about dog body language and will use some of the resources mentioned to continue learning. Your dog will thank you for it!