Canine Body Language – Let’s Break It Down

In light of the recent bite incident in Denver, CO I feel discussing Canine Body Language is a great way to kick of Paw It Forward Training’s blog. There is no need to recount what happened between news anchor, Kyle Dyer, and Argentine Mastiff, Max. But if you would like to read an excellent interpretation of “The Perfect Storm”, please read the analysis from Denver trainer, Kari Bastyr. The Perfect Storm

Body language is one of the ways your dog communicates with you. Body position, facial expression and tail movements are all clues your dog gives to convey what he may be thinking or feeling. Learning to interpret your dog’s body language will help you better understand your dog, increase communication, and help develop a stronger relationship. It is amazing how much a dog can express without ever uttering a word! After all, it is up to you to be their voice and advocate.

Below are some signs related to each type of body language. Your dog may not display all cues listed for each posture, but you will have a general idea of what the behaviors mean. In no means does this post cover every cue dogs display, but the goal is to become more aware of what your dog is telling you.

Relaxed Posture

This posture is considered your baseline for all other displays of body language. A relaxed dog looks natural, just as you would when you’re relaxed. He is probably looking around and thinking, “It’s no big deal!” It is extremely important to find the baseline in order for you to know when your dog is not displaying ordinary, or relaxed, body language.

. Eyes relaxed and slowly blinking
. Ears pricked (up) but not forward, or relaxed slightly (down and back)
. Mouth relaxed, maybe slightly open as if smiling
. Muscles do not appear tense
. Weight evenly distributed on all four feet
. Tail down and possibly has a slow wag

 

 

Alert Posture

An alert dog has been stimulated by something interesting in his environment. He is standing at attention, ready to react depending on what happens next. This does not mean your dog will react to whatever has his attention, and neither should you. It also does not mean the alert posture is only due to something negative in the environment. Your dog can feed off of your energy! Do not react until there is reason to do so. The best thing for your dog to do in this situation is to “check in” with you.

 

. Eyes open wide, alert eye contact
. Ears perked and forward; ears may move back and forth as if intently listening
. Turns head left to right (scanning)
. Mouth closed
. Nose may flare or wiggle back and forth
. Tail pointing away from dog, sometimes straight up in the air
. Leans body slightly forward
. Stands tall on all four paws

 

 

 

Play Bow Posture

The play bow invites others to play. Dogs may also use a play bow to communicate that any prior rough behavior was not intended to be threatening. Dogs may also assume this posture if they have done something wrong, to let you know they meant no harm and really just wanted to play.

 

. Ears in an alert position
. Mouth may be open
. Slight grin, sometimes mischievous
. Front end lowered, hind end up
. Forepaws bent and extended
. Tail up, usually wagging
. May give a quick, sassy bark or give high-pitched short barks

 

 

Submissive-Fearful Posture

A dog displaying active submission behavior is offering signs of submission to a dog or person to avoid any additional threats or confrontations—a dog’s way of waving the white flag, if you will. The fearful dog has hopes the dog or individual causing the submissive behavior will retreat or show signs of friendliness. Be very aware of these body language cues. These are generally a dog’s first sign of distress and pushing them could result in a snap or bite.

. Ears back
. Indirect and brief eye contact
. Mouth is curled into a worried grin
. Licks mouth or face of dominant dog, or licks the air (tongue flick)
. May nudge dominant dog’s muzzle with own nose
. Raises one forepaw
. Body lowered, hind end low; some dogs look as if they are walking sideways
. Tail down and usually with a slight wag
. May whimper
. Shaking off (like they do after a bath)
. Yawning

 Passive Submission Posture

A completely submissive dog is very afraid of a confrontation. He is signaling to the dominant dog or human absolute surrender, assuring that he is of no threat. This is the most vulnerable position for a dog.

 . Ears flattened back
. Trying to avoid eye contact
. Mouth formed into a worried grin
. Rolls onto back exposing underbelly
. May raise one hind leg to expose groin area – may do this in sitting or laying position
. Exposes throat
. Tail tucked between legs, may slightly wag
. May urinate or defecate
. May whimper
. Remains completely still if touched

 

 

 

Aggressive-Dominant Posture

This is a threatening posture communicating confidence and dominance. Dogs in this posture can be preparing to attack and, if pressed or confronted, will bite and will fight. It is important to diffuse the situation right away before a bite or fight occurs. One of the best ways to do this is to break the focus. Getting the dog to look away can certainly diffuse the situation.

 

. Ears forward, lifted as high as possible
. Direct eye contact, fixed stare
. Corners of mouth and lips pushed forward (snarl)
. May curl upper lip, exposing some teeth with mouth mostly closed
. May curl upper lip exposing all teeth and gums
. Nose wrinkled
. Stands as tall as possible, while putting most of his weigh on forepaws
. Hackles on neck and back raised
. Tail up high, stiff
. Hair bristled down tail or at tip
. May wag tail with short and fast wags
. May walk stiff-legged, as if stalking
. May warn with bark or low-pitched growl
. May snap or bite

Aggressive-Fearful Posture

Be very concerned about dogs in defensive threat posture. These dogs are showing signs of fear, or submission and aggression. Dogs displaying this behavior are afraid and may attack if pushed. You may have heard the term “fear-biters” relating to this posture. People often read them wrong, thinking they are harmless because the dog is showing signs of submission. It is important to look beyond the facial expression and hone in on the dog’s posture. In general, less of the teeth are shown in this posture. As with aggressive-dominance, the potential for a snap or bite significantly increases.

. Ears flattened back against head
. Direct eye contact, fixed stare
. Eyes large and round
. Corners of mouth drawn back, lips slightly curled (similar to submissive grin)
. May slightly expose teeth
. Nose wrinkled
. Weight shifts to hind paws, as if thinking of retreating or feeling cornered
. Body is in a crouched position
. Hackles on neck and back raised
. Tail tucked
. Raises and lowers pitch of the growl

 

Again, please understand this post has the intention of educating and increasing awareness about Canine Body Language. In no way does it represent every cue given by dogs to signal how they are feeling. Posts in the near future will discuss stress signals in dogs and how to properly greet, and not properly greet, dogs.

To learn more about Paw It Forward Training and owner, Chrissie Dugas (DeCesare), please visit www.pawitforwardtraining.com. We strive to inspire and motivate so you see results!

2 Responses to Canine Body Language – Let’s Break It Down

  1. juliette nguyen

    February 25, 2014 at 9:12 am

    I like to training my 6 months old maltese. sometimes she is willing to participate, most other’s time she just wants to play and by runing away and play ball. I was thinking about having her go to the dogs trainer school. Thank you

  2. Chloe connor

    July 1, 2016 at 8:48 am

    What about a dog who lays slightly on there side not exposing genetial area who moves there head slightly from you but keeps there eyes on you staring at you not adverting gaze and tense body. What does that mean

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