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Reading your dog’s body language

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Your dog’s body language can tell you a lot about how he is feeling. Here we tell you the signs to look out for, and what they might mean

While Dr Dolittle had the luxury of being able to talk with animals, the rest of us have to rely on spotting signs in dog behaviour and body language to try and understand how they are feeling.

This is particularly important if your dog’s behaviour or body language is different to normal. In this article we look at some of the most common dog behaviour signs that may signal that something is not quite right.
Happy and relaxed
dog yawning
Happy and relaxed

Let’s start with the body language of a happy dog. The most important thing is that they look relaxed and not tense – mouth slightly open, ears in their normal position, eyes their normal shape. And of course, a nice wagging tail is usually a good sign too (although please note that a wagging tail is not always a sign of happiness – see more below). 

But what are some of the signs of a sad dog, a nervous dog, or an angry dog? Below are a list of some of the most common signs that dogs exhibit, and what they usually mean.

Eyes appear larger than normal: A dog’s eyes can appear large either when he is feeling threatened, or when he is feeling aggressive. 

Squinting: Dogs who not feeling very well can look as though they are squinting their eyes.

Ears raised / pricked: This is usually sign of your dog being alert and ready for action. He will direct his ears towards whatever is holding his interest. It can also be a sign of aggression.

Ears pulled back: If his ears are back just slightly, he is probably just being friendly. But if his ears are completely flattened or stuck out to the sides of his head, it’s likely he’s frightened or feeling submissive.

Mouth and teeth:
Yawning: Of course, this can just mean he’s tired! But if a dog is yawning a lot, it may also mean he is stressed.

Lip licking, tongue flicking, drooling: Many dogs do all of these things fairly often anyway, but if he is doing one or more of them even more frequently, it could be a sign of nerves or stress.

Mouth closed: Usually a sign of being alert and getting ready for action. 

Teeth bared / snarling dog: This is typically a dog’s way of telling you (or another dog / animal) not to come any closer. A dog who is signalling his intention to act aggressively will often retract his lips to bare his teeth, while also wrinkling the top of his muzzle.

Snapping / nipping: This is a clear warning to back away, and usually means the dog is feeling threatened. It is also quite common puppy behaviour, but you should try and teach your puppy at an early age not to do it.

Biting and holding: This is an intent to harm, and can be a sign of an attacking dog or a ferocious dog. Consult with your vet or a professional dog trainer to ensure the safety of both you and your dog.

dog stretching

Low tail / tail between legs: Your dog may be uncomfortable, nervous or fearful.

Tail in the air: Usually suggests a dog is either feeling confident or excited.

Wagging tail: It depends. You can usually read its meaning from your dog’s overall demeanour. If he’s relaxed or excited, it’s a sign of happiness. If he has a defensive body posture and tense face, and may be barking a lot, he may be overly excited and frustrated, and you should be careful when approaching him.

Body posture
Body freezing: A dog will often do this while he assesses a situation and decides whether he needs to run or fight.

Hunched / making himself small: This means your dog is feeling scared or submissive. A dog will sometimes behave like this with a more dominant dog.

Standing up tall / making himself big: A sign of either being assertive or aggressive.

Obedience tricks – such as “Sit!” and “Drop it!” – can be very helpful to make your dog feel comfortable and happy. Find out how to teach those here!

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