Like their human counterparts, dogs experience a range of emotions. They can change from happy and stress-free, to anxious, fearful, and aggressive, depending on the situation. Pet owners must understand these changes, and, more importantly, how these emotions translate into a dog’s body language. Since dogs are unable to communicate vocally, we must rely on their gestures and mannerisms to interpret their feelings.
The relaxed or stress-free dog
A calm, carefree dog is easy to approach and may come to gently request a scratch or a snuggle. Her ears are relaxed, her eyes are gently squinted or slightly rounded, and she has no sense of urgency in her facial expression. Some dogs seem to smile when they curl the corners of the mouth upward. A relaxed dog will often lightly pant and stand or sit comfortably in the room without attempting to hide or cower. She will carry her tail at roughly spine level or lower, and may or may not wag her tail, depending on her excitement level.
The playful or excited dog
Happy, playful pups have an exuberant air. They may romp, run, chase, or bow in a play stance. They often move swiftly, with jerky movements, depending on their age and demeanor. Excited dogs will usually perk up their ears and gently or vigorously wag their tail. Dogs who are eager to play can be difficult to control on a leash, so finding them a designated off-leash area where dogs can roam free is helpful. Dogs can quickly switch from cautious to playful when approaching new dogs, so always monitor such a situation. One dog may wish to play, while the other prefers to be left alone. Some dogs, especially young ones, are prone to playfully nipping when excited, so keep this in mind if your pup is playing with other dogs or children.
The anxious or fearful dog
A fearful dog will often try to escape or hide from an uncomfortable situation. He likely will not greet or approach you, but rather will cower or look away to appear smaller or hidden. Some fearful dogs pant and drool excessively, while others keep their mouth closed. Their ears are generally positioned backward and may be pinned back if they are distressed. More of the white part of the eye (also called the sclera) may be noticeable, and the pupils may be dilated, lending to a wide-eyed look. Uncomfortable dogs may anxiously wag the tail or, conversely, tuck it between the legs. When dogs are upset, the hair on the back between their shoulders may stand up—also known as raised hackles or piloerection—and some dogs will shed more. Also, remember that fearful dogs may bite if they feel threatened.
The aggressive or hostile dog
Usually, there is no mistaking a dog who is willing to attack. These dogs wish to appear large and in charge, and will often stand forward with broadened shoulders, pointed ears, wide eyes, and a furrowed brow. They may growl, lift a lip, or show teeth. Their tail is typically held high and directed forward. Neither you nor your dog should ever approach a dog in this contentious state.
Trust your gut with dog behavior
Keep in mind that any dog can quickly switch from relaxed or happy to fearful or aggressive. Always monitor your dog, especially in new situations. If you sense he is anxious or uncomfortable, remove him from the scenario immediately. Generally, your instincts should tell you whether an unknown dog is safe to approach; however, while many signs and gestures represent specific emotions in most dogs, not all dogs operate equally, and you will need to decide what a dog is trying to communicate. If you are ever in doubt about a dog’s body language, err on the side of caution and do not approach.
Contact us if you have any questions, or would like further information or resources regarding dog body language.