The ultimate guide to reading your dog’s body language
Dogs are experts at reading human body language as they don’t have a choice but to immerse themselves and quickly get to grips with it. Unfortunately, from our side, we’re generally not as fluent, and some subtle and even more obvious signals from our dogs can be missed completely. Dogs often give us many signs that they are becoming uncomfortable which we don’t notice, or sometimes we even take it to mean that the dog is in fact happy with the interaction. This guide will help you to read and communicate with your dog like a pro and help your dog to feel that you understand and listen to them.
1. Lip licking
If a dog hasn’t just eaten then the licking of lips is often displayed when a dog is becoming uneasy or
anxious. The lip lick is often displayed as a ‘nose flick’ where the tongue turns skywards and licks the nose. They may do this once or several times in succession. When a dog licks their brain releases calming hormones, so lip licking is done in an attempt to self-soothe when they are feeling worried. Dogs also use lip licking as a way of communicating with humans or dogs that they would like space and for the interaction to end.
Pay close attention to lip licks and you will start to identify situations which make your dog uneasy which allows you to avoid them completely, or end it before their anxiety and behaviour escalates.
Similarly, yawning out of context – i.e. not after a dog has just woken up or is sleepy, is seen when
dogs are becoming anxious. Particularly if the yawn is ‘snappy’ – very wide and fast and
accompanied by a high pitched noise.
If your dog yawns during an interaction such as grooming or handling, end it by backing off and giving your dog space.
Dogs don’t just shake off when they are wet; they also do so when they have experienced a stressful event just prior. Shake-offs are a way of releasing muscle tension, in the same way that a human would with a deep breath and sigh. Shake-offs are a ‘neurological reset’ and are a way of returning the brain back to normal after a stress-inducing situation. Praise shake-offs to encourage your dog to do them more quickly and regularly as a way of ensuring they calm themselves down throughout the day, instead of allowing tension to continue building. Using a cue such as ‘good shake!’ after a shake-off will encourage them to repeat it more and more
in the future.
4. Rolling over
Perhaps the most misunderstood body language posture of all is when a dog rolls onto their back.
Humans very often take this to mean that the dog is requesting a tummy tickle, but this is rarely the
case. Rolling onto their back is an escalated signal which usually comes after yawns and lip licks. It is usually a dog who is desperate for space and for an interaction to end. Many bites happen when humans or dogs continue to touch dogs who are rolled onto their back. It is therefore not fair or ever right to punish a dog bite, as very often the dog has given multiple signals that they were uncomfortable, and has begged for the interaction to end many times. This is why humans becoming fluent in dog language is so important!
Smiling, like rolling over is a ‘calming signal’ which is often displayed well after the lower level signs mentioned above. It involves the dog bearing their teeth and is often seen alongside flattened ears and squinting eyes. When dogs are smiling they are usually feeling fearful about the current situation and are anticipating that the other party is unhappy with them and may cause them harm.
Although humans are hard-wired to want to reassure and give cuddles at this moment in time, remember that the dog is asking for space. The best thing to do is allow them a few minutes to calm down – look out for a shake-off! After which the dog is usually in a much better head space and will be
happy having a fuss.
Rachael Claire is a Behaviourist from the UK who works remotely with separation anxiety cases
around the world.