Whilst many of us humans wish we could “speak dog,” it’s not as hard to decode your dog’s language as you might think. Our dogs are constantly “talking” to us with their body language. This can be helpful to recognise, especially in situations where they might be uncomfortable! Here are a few cues to watch for to help understand how your dog may be feeling:
A soft, broadly wagging tail indicates that your dog is relaxed, comfortable, and interested in whatever’s happening. However, not all tail wags are created equally! A quick-wagging tail held up high can signal over excitement, high arousal, and a potential desire to fight. The same can be said for a tail held high and stiff without any wagging.
Conversely, a tail held low or even tucked between the legs portrays fear; this shows that your dog is definitely not comfortable with the current situation. Dogs that are this afraid will often attempt to flee or hide from the threat, though they may freeze or feel the need to defend themselves if no escape route is available (such as when they’re on a lead or within the confines of a dog park).
Dog’s ears can tell you a lot about their feelings, though they can be tricky to decode depending on their ear shape! However, some general ear positions tell similar stories. For example, holding them naturally and without tension signals a relaxed, comfortable dog, and gently pushing forward in your direction shows that they’re interested or listening.
Ears pinned back or down can signal fear or anxiety, and those pushed forward stiffly can be a sign of over-excitement or arousal, especially when accompanied by a stiff, forward-leaning posture. These are both clues that it’s time to remove your dog from whatever (or whoever) is bothering them!
Soft, relaxed eyes are a significant clue that dogs are happy and relaxed. Squinting is also a sign that they’re content and maybe even a little sleepy, provided there’s no reason to suspect they’re ill or in pain.
However, big, wide eyes with dilated pupils (and showing the whites of the eye) generally say something very different. This is a clue that your dog is highly uncomfortable in some way, whether they’re anxious, fearful, or over-excited.
Posture is a big one in dog body language, but can be the subtlest sign in some cases. If your dog’s body is generally loose, wiggly, and relaxed, this is a good sign that they’re content and comfortable.
Stiff body posture, leaning forward tightly, and bowing the head (with the exception of play bows) are all signs that dogs are not happy about something. Also, any time their hackles (or the hairs on the back of their neck) stand up straight, that’s a sure sign that it’s time to move on!
Contrary to popular belief, not all dog vocalisations mean bad things. Dogs have multiple reasons for using their voices and can produce happy sounds, too! See if you recognise any of these common dog vocalisations:
Dogs, of course, bark to alert us to intruders and voice their discontent, but they also bark when in a good mood. Short, sharp, playful barks can mean they’re happy to see you or want you to play with them, whilst higher-pitched, whiny-like barks can be a sign of excitement or anticipation (when seeing other dogs they want to greet, for example).
Big, strong barks in rapid succession are the ones that communicate dogs’ discomfort, such as when they see other dogs they don’t like or when a stranger approaches your front door. Though they can be tricky to decode, you’ll likely know which barks mean what if you think about it for a moment!
Like barking, not all growls are bad news, either. Dogs use this vocalisation to communicate their discomfort, but they also do it when they’re excited or during play. The key to decoding growls is to consider their context within a situation and your dog’s other body language cues whilst they’re growling.
For example, if you’re playing tug with your dog and they growl whilst trying to hold on to the tug toy, this isn’t something to worry about. They’re simply excited about playing with you.
On the other hand, if a dog sees something they’re unfamiliar with or dislike and you hear a low growl, this may be their way of saying they’re unhappy. Especially when paired with a lowered head or stiff body posture, this combination is definitely a warning to heed!
Whilst whining and crying can signal pain and/or sadness in dogs, it can also suggest they’re excited about something. After not seeing you all day, your dog may whine in excitement when you come home, which can also be true for seeing their doggie friends from a distance.
However, if they’re not typically very social and whine and/or cry when seeing people or other dogs, this may signal anxiety or nervousness. If you’re seeing this, it’s a good idea to remove them, as the whining can turn to barking and other fear-based behaviours if they feel uncomfortable.