When you and your dog miscommunicate — either she doesn’t understand what you’re telling her or you can’t interpret her canine language — it can result in lots of missed signals, frustration, and can even damage the bond you share with her.
One example of the potential for misreading your dog is the common belief among humans that when a dog is wagging her tail or giving kisses, she’s happy. However, that’s not always the case. Aggressive dogs are known to wag their tails as they attack, and anxious pups often kiss up a storm.
That’s why the more you can learn to distinguish between calm, anxious and aggressive dog behavior in the moment, the better prepared you’ll be to avoid an impending disaster.
“Dogs talk all the time. They're trying to talk to us the same way we talk to each other,” says veterinary behaviorist Dr. Shana Gilbert-Gregory. “The problem is we don't understand them. They're not capable of learning our language, so we have to learn theirs.”1
Examples of Relaxed, Anxious, and Aggressive Body Language
To understand a dog’s communication signals, it’s necessary to pay attention to specific body postures, movements, and facial gestures. Gilbert-Gregory offers some clues:
How a dog looks when relaxed:
- Posture — The weight is carried evenly; may do a play bow or wiggle
- Tail — Relaxed and neutral position; may be wagging
- Ears — Neutral position
- Mouth — May be open with tongue hanging out, or may be closed with lips relaxed over teeth
- Eyes — Soft, with normal pupil size
- Appetite — Readily eats
How a dog looks when anxious:
- Posture (and fur) — Piloerection (raised hair on the shoulders and back); might roll over and lift a forelimb
- Mouth — Might show a submissive smile (a very wide smile), or may be panting, lip licking and/or yawning
- Ears — Pinned back
- Eyes — Whale eye* (white portion of eye showing at corner or rim), pupil dilation or averted gaze
*A note about whale eye according to Gilbert-Gregory: “The dog is saying, ‘I am not a threat, and I'm not sure if I'm going to need to move away from you to disengage from this situation’. It's a stress signal.”
How a dog looks when aggressive:
- Posture — Muscles tense, weight shifts back and low to the ground; may also roll over to expose belly or raise one paw
- Hair — Piloerection is a red flag
- Tail — May be tucked or low to the ground; may be wagging slowly or rapidly
- Mouth — Pulled back, with possible growling, snarling, excessive panting, lip licking, chewing or yawning
Gilbert-Gregory makes the excellent point that aggression is actually a normal, natural form of communication for dogs. If they perceive a threat, they prepare to protect themselves. However, the way humans respond to a dog’s aggression is also normal because it’s scary, especially when it’s unexpected.
Aggressive dogs can also be frightening for veterinary staff. “When you walk into an exam room and the dog is yawning or lip licking in response to your arrival or approach, they're likely politely telling you to back up and disengage,” says Gilbert-Gregory.
10 Signs of a Happy Dog
- His eyes and eyelids are relaxed, he blinks a lot, his gaze is soft, and his brow is smooth. His ears are also relaxed, not cocked or pointing. His mouth is open a bit with a few teeth visible (but not bared), his tongue may be lolling, and he may even appear to be smiling.
- She’s holding her body in a relaxed posture vs. a tense or stiff stance. She’s holding her tail high and wagging it with such gusto her whole body is wiggling. Alternatively, her tail may be in a more neutral position, with a softer, slower wag.
- He has no destructive behaviors, even when he’s home alone. Happy dogs generally get plenty of physical and mental stimulation. Bored, under-exercised, under-stimulated dogs are more likely to become destructive, along with dogs who suffer from separation anxiety.
- She loves to play. Happy dogs are always up for a game or a walk or a ride in the car. Since exercise and play are so natural for dogs, if your canine companion doesn’t seem interested, she may be dealing with some pain or an illness, and it’s time to make an appointment with your veterinarian.
- He’s belly-up and tongue out. Happy dogs tend to show their bellies and tongues as they wriggle around on their backs. Happy belly displays are different from submissive belly rolls in which the dog’s mouth is usually closed and his body is stiff.
- Her appetite is good, which indicates she’s both happy and feeling physically well. A noticeable change in your pet's appetite can be a symptom of an underlying condition.
- He’s happy barking. Some dogs rarely bark, but those who do tend to have a higher-pitched bark when they’re happy that usually doesn’t last long.
- She play bows. Many happy dogs raise their backsides in the air and lower their chests to the ground as an invitation to play with either their favorite human or a doggy friend.
- He leans into you. A happy dog will often lean into your hand when you pet him and lean into or keep contact with your body whenever the opportunity presents itself.
- She’s thrilled to see you. Happy dogs are without fail excited to see their human come through the door, even if said human has only stepped outside for a minute to check the weather!