As dog owners, we often joke about how great it would be if our dogs could talk. This is a dream that owners and scientists have pursued for a long-time, and has recently resulted in the use of dog-friendly soundboards which let dogs communicate in English. But understanding your dog doesn’t need any fancy technology or training skills. Our dogs are constantly talking to us, only they use their body language rather than words. All you need to do is watch, and you will hear them.
The topic of a dog’s body language is huge, and there are plenty of books filled with everything you need to know to truly understand your dog. However, this blog is intended to cover the most important bits – how to know when your dog is stressed, worried, or scared, and how you can help them.
The key thing in all of this is to know what is normal for your own dog. Each pooch is an individual and, just like us, they have their own individual quirks. What’s below is a guideline, but some dogs will be slightly different in how they interact with us.
A dog’s head can tell us so much about how they’re feeling! Their mouth, eyes, and ears all have a story to tell, as well as all the muscles around them.
The mouth: when a dog is feeling stressed, their mouth is often one of the first places to show it. What is usually a happy, relaxed mouth can become pursed and tense. If a dog is concerned, this will often go one step further and turn into nose licking, lip licking, and lip smacking. Panting can also be a sign that your dog is unhappy about something, and this can be accompanied by a tight smile/gape, where the muscles around the corners of your dog’s mouth will be tense. Surprisingly, a yawn from your dog may also be a way for them to show that they are stressed – it’s commonly used as a way for them to calm down the situation around them, and get a little bit of peace.
The eyes: a happy dog will have soft eyes, with the skin around them nice and relaxed. These are normally shaped like a fat almond. Any deviation from the norm can mean your pooch is upset: frequent blinking or squinting can be your dog trying to show that they’re not a threat to something/someone, and is often a way of them asking someone to ignore them. On the other end of the scale, dogs can also hold their eyes wide open in what’s known as a ‘whale eye’. This is when you can see the whites around your dog’s eyes, and is a sign that they are uncomfortable with something that’s going on.
The ears: this is a part of a dog that can very hugely depending on a dog’s breed and genetics. Some dogs have ears that naturally sit up straight, like a chihuahua or a German shepherd, and others have floppy ears, like a spaniel or a Labrador. A general rule of thumb is that if your dog’s ears are pushed forward or held naturally, they’re generally likely to be relaxed, excited, or curious. Once your dog starts to hold their ears back to any degree, they’re likely to be upset, scared or annoyed.
A common misconception about our dogs is that a wagging tail means a happy dog. This is often not actually the case. If you watch your dog’s tail carefully, you’ll notice that there are a couple of different wags that can come out. The iconic one that we all know and love is a large, sweeping motion: it’s very relaxed and loose, and travels over a relatively large area. This is a happy wag, and shows that your dog is really chilled. However, another common wag is quite stiff and staccato, moving tightly from side to side. Sometimes, this type of wag doesn’t extend to the base, with just the tip of the tail quivering instead. This is a sign that your dog is worried about something that’s going on, and would benefit from just being offered a nice calm and quiet place to relax.
Another thing to watch out for with the tail is how it’s being held. Every dog has a naturally different tail position (some dogs have higher-set tails than others, for example), so it’s very important to know what is normal for your pooch. Watch your dog when they’re calm and relaxed, such as when they’re pottering about the house, to see what their tail does naturally. From there, you can start to see the changes. For example, if their tail is held low, possibly even clamped right between their back legs, your dog is trying to tell you that they’re particularly worried or even scared. However, if their tail is held bolt upright and is very stiff, that can be quite an assertive pose, and could lead to danger for whoever is at the receiving end. Bear in mind that other dogs can find that pose very intimidating, and it can spell trouble in the dog park.
If you zoom out from the particulars, you can also get a lot of information about how your dog is feeling from how they hold their full body. The main one that happens is related to moving away from something scary – this can be anything from the nail clippers or an unwanted cuddle to the barking dog across the road. Their head will likely turn away, and they may refuse to look at the offending item/person/dog. This is their attempt at avoiding conflict, and is a good sign that you need to diffuse the situation – usually by getting them out of there! Equally, you may see their body lean away from whatever it is that’s worrying them, or they may go one step further and physically walk away. It’s important to respect your dog’s decision if that’s what they choose to do: let them move away. Sometimes, if your dog is particularly worried about something, they may feel unable to move away, and will instead hunch into a crouched position. If they do this, try to encourage them away from the situation, or try to get rid of the thing that’s overwhelming them.
Context is Key
Understanding your dog relies heavily on what surrounds their behaviour. If we take the nose-licking and lip-licking example from earlier, this may not be a sign of stress if you’ve just given them a tasty treat – they’re simply enjoying the biscuit! Equally, your dog may yawn because they’re genuinely tired: it won’t always be a sign of worry.
The way to understand what these behaviours actually mean is to look at everything else around the behaviour. Are there any other signs of stress? Could the behaviour be related to something else? However, if you’re in doubt, it’s always better to err on the side of caution and see if you can help your dog calm down.
How to Calm Down Your Dog
If you see any of these behaviours, you want to help your dog to feel more safe. The first and most important thing to do is to remove whatever is concerning your dog. Think about how your dog is seeing the world, and what might be concerning them. All too often, these behaviours come out because we’re trying to cuddle our dogs when they’d rather be left alone. If you notice this happening, respect your dog’s wishes and give them some space. We always recommend doing a petting consent test too, to make sure your dog is happy with their cuddles.
After you’ve removed the offending item/dog/person, your dog will likely still have some stress remaining – these stress hormones can take several days to fully go back to normal. You want to be helping to counteract those feelings to help your dog to feel safe again. A great way to do this is sniffing. Sniffing is a naturally calming activity, and releases a slew of happy hormones into your dog’s brain. Use a snufflemat, or simply scatter some treats in some long grass, to encourage your dog to use their sniffer.
Similar to sniffing, licking and chewing also help your dog to calm down. Why not fill a bone with something tasty, like some wet food or peanut butter, and leave them to it?
Watch Your Dog
If you’ve learned something new here, try to watch your dog a little more closely over the next week. Do you see any of these behaviours? Think about how you can help them through it, and let us know how you get on below.