This is an article in 2 parts. Part 2 is here, This part is more “talk,” while the other has more photos and two very informative videos. Reading this page first will give you a deeper understanding of the topic.
Dog body language is usually interpreted in terms of emotional states: happy, angry, aggressive etc. Since we cannot prove that dogs think in a language, the term “postures” is usually preferred.
Some people do attempt to assign more sophisticated reasoning to body language, On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals – suggests that dogs send signals out to other creatures in a deliberate effort to mediate and/or prevent conflict. This implies that dogs think on a very sophisticated level; that they have theory of mind This is a controversial topic in some circles. For more information check out the book and the wikipedia article.
Regardless of how you feel about “calming signals,” dogs do constantly send signals that provide us with information about their emotional states, and being aware of them can improve our relationship with them and prevent unnecessary conflicts.
If there is one most important rule to “reading” dogs it that it is never correct to read a dog based on one particular part or aspect of his posture. A wagging tail in and of itself means nothing. Neither does a wagging tongue, forward ears or raised hackles. Always look at the entire dog in context.
This a happy dog that is soliciting play. She is in a “play bow” (which is difficult to see from this photo), where the front legs are bent with the elbows touching the ground and the rear end high in the air. A “play bow” looks a lot like a stretch.
Her mouth is open with loose lips and a flapping tongue. Her eyes are “soft” and just “look” happy. Here is where context becomes very important. I took this photo, and I know that the dog wanted to play – it is difficult to translate that context without telling a whole story. (I won’t.) However, under different circumstances, for example with a strange dog and no play bow, a dog looking me in the eye would mean something different.
Some indicators of a happy dog are:
- relaxed, loose, body
- fast, vigorous tail wag, usually involving the entire rear end
- tail thumping on the floor when sitting or lying down
- loose “floppy” lips
- open mouth with a loose tongue
- rhythmic, slowing panting (as opposed to rapdi panting, which means exertion or excitement)
This dog is fearful and intimidated. His ears are pulled back – something you would know if you had seen the dog when not fearful. Here again, context is key. He seems to be leaning or pulling away from the camera and he has a “half moon” eye – part of the white is showing. His lips are pulled back into a fear grimace. (Again, easier to see if you know the dog)
The “half-moon” eye can also indicate agitation or potential aggression – either way, this is a dog that you want to leave alone.
Another key signal from an anxious dog is a sudden out-of-context action such as:
- repeated yawning
- licking chops without the presence of food, usually to the nose
- sudden scratching and biting at self
- suddenly sniffing the ground or other object
We call these “displacement behaviors,” where the dog almost seems to be looking for something else to do to distract himself of the other individual. Think of looking at your watch or Blackberry while riding in the elevator with a stranger or someone you don’t want to talk to.
This dogs looks aggressive. While it is difficult to see, his eyes seem fixed on one point ahead. The eyes also look very different from the friendly dog before. They have an unquantifiable “hard” aspect to them.
The dog seems to be leaning forward. His ears may even be pointing forward. The lips are also pushed forward, in what appears to be a snarl. The entire dog seems to be pointing ahead, toward his target.
Some key signs that may indicate aggression -
- piloerection; raising of the “hackles” indicates excitement and arousal. This may mean aggression, or it may just mean excitement. Context is very important yet again.
- staring – dogs don’t tend to stare at something or someone for very long unless they are ready to lunge or give chase.
- tight, stiff body postures.
- raised posture. An agressive dog tries to look big
- tight lips, front teeth exposed