Fun dogTo a dog, smell is everything, almost. Smell is how they explore their world and gather all kinds of information. We all know that. What may not be as obvious is the importance of body language. Dogs can tell a lot about us or other dogs by observing body language. And they are great observers.

We can also tell a lot about the mental state of dogs at any given moment by their body language. That's if we know what to look for and how to interpret it. Following is a very informative article on the subject courtesy of the ASPCA .

Canine Body Language

Dogs are very expressive animals. They communicate when they’re feeling happy, sad, nervous, fearful and angry, and they use their faces and bodies to convey much of this information. Dog body language is an elaborate and sophisticated system of nonverbal communication that, fortunately, we can learn to recognize and interpret. Once you learn how to “read” a dog’s postures and signals, you’ll better understand his feelings and motivations and be better able to predict what he’s likely to do. These skills will enable you to interact with dogs with greater enjoyment and safety.

It helps to first learn about the various components that make up dog body language. Dogs use facial expressions, ear set, tail carriage and overall demeanor to signal their intentions and feelings to others. Breaking their body language down into components is helpful at first for building your observation and interpretation skills. Your goal, however, is to be able to observe the entire dog and the situation or context he’s in, in order to accurately determine what he’s trying to say. It’s not possible to understand your dog’s feelings and intentions by looking at just one aspect of his body language.  

Dog Faces

Even though dogs’ faces and heads come in many shapes and sizes, your dog’s basic facial expressions can tell you a great deal about how he’s feeling.

The Eyes

Your dog can, within limits, vary the shape and size of his eyes or the direction and intensity of his gaze. When your dog is relaxed and happy, his eyes will be their normal shape. Some dogs have round eyes, while others are more almond-shaped. Eyes that appear larger than normal usually indicate that a dog is feeling threatened in some way. He may be stressed by something or he may be frightened. An aggressive dog is also likely to have eyes that look larger than normal. If your dog’s eyes seem smaller than they usually are, this can also mean he’s feeling frightened or stressed. Dogs who are in pain or not feeling well often look as though they’re squinting their eyes. Dogs who submissively grin (see below) may also squint their eyes. 

The direction of your dog’s gaze can also be telling. Dogs rarely look directly into each other’s eyes because this is considered threatening behavior. Yet most dogs learn that it’s okay, even pleasant, to look directly at people. A dog who looks at you with a relaxed facial expression is being friendly and hoping that you’ll notice him. A dog who looks directly at you, actually staring at you with a tense facial expression, is another matter indeed. A direct stare is much more likely to be a threat, and if you’re in close proximity to such a dog, it’s wise to slowly look away. Looking away is what dogs do when they don’t want to appear threatening. A dog who averts his gaze when you look at him is signalling that he’s submissive. It can also indicate that he’s worried about interacting with you. Maybe he’s been scared of people in the past, and so he isn’t very confident about dealing with people now.

If your dog doesn’t look directly at you, but instead looks out of the corners of his eyes so that you see a good deal of the whites of his eyes (the sclera), he might be leading up to an aggressive outburst. Known as “whale eye” this is often seen when a dog is guarding a chew bone, toy or favorite spot. It’s different than the eye of a dog who, for instance, is resting with his head and opens his eyes to give you a sideways glance. In this case, he won’t appear rigid or tense, and you won’t see much of the whites of his eyes.

The Mouth

Dogs do a lot more with their mouths than just eat and drink. Even though they can’t use their mouths to talk, the way they position their lips, jaws and teeth speaks volumes. When your dog is relaxed and happy, he’s likely to have his mouth closed or slightly opened. If his mouth is open, he may be panting—this is how dogs cool their bodies. You might see his teeth because his mouth is slightly opened.

A dog who’s frightened or feeling submissive probably has his mouth closed. His lips might be pulled back slightly at the corners. He might flick his tongue in and out, or he might lick if he’s interacting with a person or another animal. When he’s feeling uptight, he might yawn in an exaggerated fashion.

Some dogs show a “submissive grin” when they’re feeling extremely submissive. They pull their lips up vertically and display their front teeth (canines and incisors). This signal is almost always accompanied by an overall submissive body posture, such as a lowered head, yelping or whining, and squinty eyes. Only some dogs “grin” this way. People sometimes mistakenly think a dog is being aggressive when, in fact, he’s grinning submissively and trying to communicate the exact opposite of aggression.

A dog who’s signalling his intention to act aggressively will often retract his lips to expose his teeth. He may pull his lips up vertically to display his front teeth while also wrinkling the top of his muzzle. This is typical of a dog who’s warning you not to come any closer.

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Offensively Aggressive

If your dog feels anger and confidence at the same time, you might see offensively aggressive body language. He’s on the attack, and he may or may not stop if the person or animal he’s focused on stays away or retreats. He does his best to look large and intimidating by holding his head high, his ears up and forward, and his tail raised and rigid. He might flag his tail. His hackles might be up. He positions himself over his forelegs so that he’s ready to lunge or charge forward. He stares directly at the person or animal. He shows his teeth by wrinkling his muzzle and retracting his lips vertically to display his front teeth. He growls, snarls or barks in a low, threatening tone.

Defensively Aggressive

Most dogs give plenty of warning before reacting aggressively, but you need to know what to look for to recognize the signs. If your dog is feeling defensively aggressive, he’d rather not get into an altercation if he doesn’t have to. He’d rather the person or animal he’s afraid of just back off and leave him alone. But at the same time, he’s ready to stand up for himself. Because he’s feeling both fear and anger, he often adopts a combination of fearful and offensive postures. Typically, he looks large, his ears are up and forward, and his tail is held high and rigid. He centers his weight squarely on all fours, over his forelegs or over his rear legs, depending on the situation. Usually it depends on how close he is to the threat and whether his intention is to stand his ground, charge forward or retreat. Typically, he draws his lips back to display his teeth, and he may or may not wrinkle his muzzle. Usually he growls, snarls or barks, although his bark might be high-pitched. Often, his hackles are up. People sometimes refer to a defensively aggressive dog as adopting “a good offense as the best defense.” Dogs like this are sometimes bluffing in that they really would not fight if push came to shove—they would likely retreat. But other dogs will make the first strike, depending on the balance of confidence and fear they’re feeling.

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Dogs are everywhere. It's not uncommon to encounter a strange dog either on a leash or running free. Knowing what they are feeling about you is important information that can make the difference between a pleasant encounter or a very bad one. Their body language will tell you before you get any closer so it's important to know what the eyes, mouth, ears, tail, hair  and general posture are telling you.

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Last Modified: November 24, 2015

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