Why is dog body language important?
If you learn to read dog body language, you are in a better position to look after your dog’s welfare.
Unfortunately dogs don’t speak our verbal language. We can figure out what they like or don’t like when we learn how to read dog body language.
If we know a bit more about how they feel, then we can alter our behaviour and the environment to ensure that we are looking after their welfare. For example, based on her body language, I know my dog Liana doesn’t love being hugged. While I would love to hug her, I know that she doesn’t like that type of interaction. Instead I choose to interact with her in a way she does like. For Liana, a nice gentle massage on her back when she is lying on the couch with me is one of the things she usually likes.
What dogs feel
You may note that I’ve used terms such as ‘how dogs feel’ and ‘what dogs like/don’t like’. Technically we cannot know what a dog actually feels. We can make assumptions about how they feel based on what body language they are displaying, but we can never really know definitively. I will keep using these terms simply because it is easier to discuss.
In the example above, I assume that Liana likes having a gentle massage on her back when I see that in general her body is relaxed. Specifically I might be looking for loose relaxed muscles in the face (particularly around the jaw and forehead). While I can assume she likes this interaction, I cannot know what she actually feels. I can only observe the body language that she displays and make my assumptions based on this.
Where to begin
When I first started learning about dog body language, I remember feeling overwhelmed. There were so many different body parts to notice at the same time. Over time and with practice, it becomes easier to read.
The topic of all aspects of dog body language is too big for this blog. Two great places for resources to get started are:
Early warning signs
To teach yourself to start reading dog body language, pick one thing at a time to look for. Below are some of the most important early signs of a dog showing they are not comfortable:
- Tension versus relaxed: Can you see any tense muscles in your dog? Tension around the eyes, forehead and jaw can be an early indication that your pooch might be a little uncertain in a given situation. If you see tension in the entire body, this may be indication of a higher level of stress.
- Head turn: The head turn will be made away from something that a dog doesn’t like or feels uncomfortable about. For example, a human bending over a dog to clip on a lead can be an intense experience for some dogs and they may turn their head away from the human in this situation.
- Lip lick: This is where the dog licks their lips to indicate they are uncomfortable and it can happen very quickly. For example, if a person is asking their dog to do a specific cue that the dog doesn’t understand, the dog may lip lick to indicate they are uncomfortable.
When a dog shouts…
These particular actions above are usually used frequently by dogs and often we humans don’t notice them. If our dogs are trying to communicate that they are uncomfortable and they aren’t listened to, they may communicate louder. An increase in volume in terms of dog body language can be the dog growling or biting to be heard.
If we notice the early warning signs, we have the opportunity to act before a dog feels like they have no option but to growl or bite to be heard. Imagine the last time you felt you had no option but to yell at someone or worse, be physically violent with someone in order to feel safe in a situation. It’s a horrible situation to be in and one we want to avoid putting our dogs in.
What is the situation?
To understand dog body language we need to consider what the situation is. Just because your dog has licked their lips, doesn’t mean that they are uncertain. They might be licking their lips in anticipation of a tasty treat they can see. Similarly, you might observe general body tension in your dog while you are playing fetch with them. The tension that they are displaying in this context would most likely be due to excitement rather than being fearful or uncertain.
If in doubt
If you are not sure if your dog is enjoying a specific situation or interaction there is an easy way to find out without having to know all of the intricacies of dog body language.
It’s such an important concept that I think it deserves its own line. A consent test is where we let the dog choose to come closer or move further away from a situation. For example, if you don’t know if your dog wants to be touched, let them come to you rather than approaching them. You can then give pauses in your pats to give your dog an opportunity to move away or snuggle in closer.
Our dog Liana often appears conflicted about what interaction she wants. She seems to want to have affection and touch, but can find the close proximity and attention of a person overwhelming. We wait for her to choose when she wants to come to us to be touched. This means we know she is coming to us when she actually wants the interaction. We then give pauses in patting her so she can choose to move away or stay where she is.
Need some help?
We are always happy to help you decode your dog’s body language. Depending on your needs we offer group classes or one on one consults.