Dogs have developed the ability to read and respond to our emotional states, yet what could be said about our understanding of their body language?
Body language signals emotional intent, and is something we all naturally pick up on when in the company of other people and/or animals. Eye contact allows us to detect what holds the focus of a person or animal, which helps us decide how we approach each other. Interpreting body language also impacts our decision in how to interact with the individual.
It is important that we are able to read and understand our dogs body language so that we can;
Meet the dogs needs
Avoid and prevent trouble
Acknowledge and measure the dogs state of mind
Communicate to other owners how your dog is feeling and how they could respond
When we successfully understand what our dogs are experiencing, we can help reinforce behaviours and build a bond.
When observing and interpreting body language consider the whole environment. Don't over-interpret one single body part or movement, instead observe the pace of movement, direct/indirect eye contact, calming signals and signs of confrontation or diffusion.
Calming signals are a dogs way of expressing their feelings in situations, so that we and other animals can respond with understanding.
Always observe their neutral tail carriage so you can recognise a change.
A happy tail is not necessarily a wagging tail. If a dogs torso is tense it can be a sign that the dog is uncomfortable.
A wagging tail combined with loose hip/whole body wag indicates a genuine happy dog. An over exaggerated version is a 'helicopter tail'.
A yawn could just be a dog stretching, however it is also a good indicator in what the dog is currently experiencing.
It can be interpreted as the dog feeling uncomfortable or pressured. If the dog is in a situation that is overwhelming and is yawning, pay attention to what your dog is communicating. If a yawn signal doesn't work the dog will have to be more obvious. To avoid any escalation, give your dog a break.
Dilation of pupils, frequent blinking and whale eye are an example of how they communicate discomfort and stress.
You can also recognise a dogs state of mind from the softness of their eyes. If their gaze is soft with gentle blinking, this indicates they're calm. A dog that has a hard focus demonstrates a dog that is currently fixated on something, and/or is going to react.
In the picture below you can recognise straight away that the dog is experiencing discomfort from their tense body and the large amount of white visible (whale eye).
Horizontal lip retraction can represent fear, and vertical retraction is used in threatening situations.
One exception to the rule is smiling dogs! They are always a pleasure to meet 🙂
Other indicators of a stress response are; hackles, body becoming larger or smaller, ears forward or back and how the dog is distributing weight.
Whilst out with your dog you can focus your attention your how your dog responds to different stimuli. You can notice your dogs greeting style… e.g the best way for dogs to greet each other is by walking over in a crescent. A crescent allows the dog to greet the other dog in a non threatening way, as both dogs can sniff the other without facial confrontation. If a dog bounds over, look at how your dog responds and create space if needs be.
Greeting styles and the way your dog responds can always be adjusted through training, so if your dog is currently displaying fearful body language or is full on when meeting other dogs/people… there is always an opportunity to create better behaviours!