Have you ever wished that your dog could just tell you what she wanted? This primer on dog body language can help you and your dog communicate without words.
I have been taking my nervous dog — Jenna — to dog training class practically since the day we adopted her two years ago. Training has done wonders for her anxiety, and it’s helped us bond in a way that I don’t think we would have without our weekly classes. One of the most eye-opening moments in training happened maybe a year ago. The trainer asked us to run through our usual comments, but without the words. No sit. No stay. No come. Just hand signals and eye contact.
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I’d never tried communicating wordlessly with Jenna before and was amazed that she did every single command without me saying a word.
Verbal commands are still important, of course. If your dog isn’t looking at you, you need her to respond to her name and commands, so that you can get her attention. And humans are verbal creatures, so I think that it helps us, too. The point here, though, is that your dog is reading your body language, and she is trying to communicate with her own non-verbal signals.
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Take a look at the picture at the very top of this page. That photo is from the day that Jenna came home with us. See how she is sitting? Eyes straight ahead, and ears back? That dog body language is not saying that she’s calmly waiting to be petted. She is terrified. Jenna shuts down when she is nervous, but if she had aggressive tendencies someone trying to pet her in this situation would be in danger of being bitten.
What Dog Body Language is Saying
Just as some words can mean different things in different context, dog body language can mean different things from your dog. Some signals are very clear while others might require you to get a feel for how your dog communicates. I learned most of the signals below through our years in training class and some just from bonding and communicating with Jenna.
- Wide eyes – Your dog is afraid or uncomfortable, and you should get her out of that situation as soon as possible.
- Ears pulled back – This is a sign of nervousness.
- Bristled fur – Most folks are familiar with this sign of aggression.
- Yawning – This dog body language can mean that your dog is tired, but it can also signal that she is overwhelmed or anxious. Consider the situation when deciding what your dog’s yawn means.
- Rolling onto her back – She may be asking for belly rubs because she’s feeling playful, or she could be nervous and looking for comfort. In general, if she’s more stiff, she’s more likely to be nervous than happy. EDIT: My friend Allison, who is also a professional dog trainer mentioned that she has seen agressive dogs get on their backs and play submissive, then bite when you approach. Such a great reminder that dog body language depends on temperament. If you don’t know the dog well, it’s always best to be cautious and take your cues from the owner.
- Wagging tail – A tail that wags freely means your dog is happy, but if her tail looks stiff when she’s wagging it, she’s feeling nervous.
- Raising one front paw – Your pup is telling you that she’s feeling uncertain. Jenna does this when she needs more time in the backyard to go potty, too.
- Eye contact – In many cases eye contact is aggressive dog body language. If your dog is in a new or strange situation, though, she will often look to her owner — the alpha “dog” — for how to react.
- Bared teeth – Paired with other signs of nervousness, a dog showing her teeth is acting aggressively. Jenna also shows her teeth when she is hot or happy though. You can tell the difference because the rest of her signals are relaxed.
- Lack of eye contact – If a dog refuses to look at something, chances are it’s frightening her. It’s pretty easy to tell when a dog is just scoping out the scene versus pointedly trying not to look at something. As you get to know dog body language, you’ll be able to tell the difference.
- Sitting – If you didn’t ask your dog to sit, and she sits down in a hurry, she may be nervous, especially if she freezes and shows other nervous signs, like staring straight ahead or lifting a paw.
- Shaking – Is your dog cold? If not, she’s probably scared. Whenever there is a thunderstorm or there are fireworks, Jenna quivers visibly.
I would love to hear from the other dog owners out there! What signals does your dog send when she’s happy, nervous, or aggressive?