When learning how to tell what your dog is thinking, you need to understand that dogs communicate with one another through body language.
They speak primarily through various forms of nonverbal communication and social cues established thousands of years ago. Since we speak with one another in a verbal language that dogs cannot comprehend, they assume that we are just like them, communicating using our bodies.
Dogs are constantly trying to communicate with us using their body and space. To understand what they are saying, we need to learn to “read” our dog.
In order of importance, here are seven keys to reading your dog’s body language:
1. Energy Level
The energy level indicates the state of arousal that the dog is in. This is the most important thing to notice. Indicators of a high-energy dog are tail-wagging (which does not necessarily mean the dog is happy! It just means he has high energy), barking, muscle tremors, faster reactions than normal and the tendency to walk faster than normal. A dog with low energy reacts slowly and will want to stop and rest whenever possible.
The state of arousal will not tell you anything about the dog’s confidence level, but a high-energy dog can react quickly. If he is showing intent to bite with a short mouth growl (a threatening growl showing only the front teeth), steer clear!
Knowing the dog’s energy level can help you diagnose what to expect from the dog, especially in training situations.
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2. Body Axis
The body axis has to do with which direction dog is leaning. If a dog is straight up and down, he is showing you he is confident. A dog leaning away from a stimulus is most likely frightened and should not be approached.
A good time to observe this “stance” is at a dog park. Dogs greeting one another will typically do so at the withers, or shoulder bone. The submissive dog will stand still as the dominant, confident dog will approach the submissive dog at the shoulder, forming a “T.”
Reading the body axis can help you understand how confident your dog is in any particular situation.
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A dog that is walking with a tall stride is confident — sometimes overly confident — and could be challenging you or another dog. As a dog gets more insecure, he will begin to “slink” toward the ground.
A dog that lifts one paw while sitting is either recognizing that you are dominant or showing a sign of insecurity. A standing paw lift is a sign of indecision; the dog is thinking about what to do next.
4. Muscle Tone
The muscle tone of a dog can tell you how tense your dog is. A confident or calm dog will have loose, relaxed muscles. As he gets more nervous, his muscles will tighten up.
The position of the neck on the body or neck carriage can tell you more about the dog’s intentions and confidence level. A confident dog will have a high neck carriage. When a dog is hunting or herding, he will lower his head to appear submissive. If his hackles are up or having piloerection, he is trying to appear bigger and is telling you to go away.
All parts of the head are to be read separately, but they all fall under one category — and they all have the same level of importance:
- Direct eye contact is seen as a challenge, and typically the submissive animal will break the eye contact first. The pupils will dilate if the dog is angry and is getting aggressive.
- Ears up and pointed forward could mean alert, friendly, curious, eager, excited, guarding or aggressive, so obviously they are not the best indicator of a dog’s mood.
- If the dog’s ears are flat against the head, he is showing fear and/or submissive behavior.
The height of the tail is what we are looking for when reading the dog’s tail. An alpha male or female will hold the tail above the level of the spine. As the dog’s insecurity increases, the tail will lower.
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When reading a dog’s body language, go through these seven keys in your head. You can better understand the confidence level and intentions, and have a better idea of what to expect.
For another take on reading a dog’s body language, watch this video guide: