Much like humans, dogs communicate extensively through body language. Their tails, ears, posture, and even the direction of their gaze speak volumes if you know how to listen. With time and careful observation, you can learn the fine distinctions in your dog's tail wags and ear position.
To begin understanding your dog's body language, watch her in a variety of contexts, focusing both on her individual parts and on her body as a whole:
Ears: Where is she holding them on her head? High and forward? Pulled back? Out to the side like airplanes? For dogs with floppy or cropped ears, study the part where your dog's ears meet her head.
Eyes: Are they soft and relaxed or tense with ridges around them? Are they wide enough that you can see the whites of them? Are her pupils dilated?
Mouth: Is it open slightly but relaxed? Closed? Is his tongue relaxed or tight? Are his lips pulled back and long? Is he snarling, showing his teeth? Is his lip caught on a tooth?
Tail base and tail: Is her tail lifted? Tucked? Neutral? Low but wagging gently? Wagging softly? Wagging with stiffness? Wagging her whole body? For dogs with cropped tails, focus on where the tail meets the body.
Posture and overall body: Is she standing tall? Is she crouched? Is she standing evenly on all four feet? Is she leaning forward? Backward? Is one paw raised? Are her muscles tense or relaxed?
Behavior: Is she sniffing a lot and in a random fashion? Is she licking her lips or flicking her tongue out? Is she yawning without being near bedtime or waking from a nap? Is she shaking herself off? Is she panting without a clear cause? Is she lying quietly with her weight more on one hip or does she look like the Sphinx?
As you track your dog's body language, use descriptive rather than interpretive language. For instance, rather than saying my dog freaked out at the mail carrier, I would note that when the mail carrier approached our house, Ralphie jumped onto his chair by the window, barking. His tail, held nearly straight up, moved quickly and stiffly as the hair on his back (his hackles) rose from tail to neck. When the mail carrier moved away from the house, Ralphie leaned onto his front legs, growling, with a tense mouth. Once the coast was clear, he settled down into his chair, body softer and ears at the side of his head but eyes still scanning the world outside the window.
You can practice with the photos below. The context is me taking a picture of Ralphie while he's on the couch with me. What do you see?
And now what do you see with the whole picture?
I took the photo because his tooth is caught on his lip. Just after I took this one, he turned his head away.
Over time you’ll develop a clear sense of what is usual for your dog in a range of circumstances so that you know whether or not you can keep training or if it’s time to move on to something else. You'll also know if you need to get your dog out of a stressful situation.
Next week I'll discuss how human body language can cause problems for dogs and then in my final post of February I'll include resources to help you interpret the body language you've become so familiar with in your dog.