Watch any two dogs playing and you’ll see dog body language at work. The trouble is, it can be a bit like watching a movie with the sound turned down.
You think you know what’s going on, but you’re not completely sure. You could have it totally wrong.
The Good News
The good news is that you already know more about dog body language than you realize. Let’s take a simple example.
Q. You see a dog that is wagging his tail so fast that his whole body is wriggling. What does it mean?
A. Of course, it means the dog is feeling happy and he is keen to interact.
Simple. Let’s try another one.
Q. Are both of these dogs comfortable with being hugged?
A. No! Dog One is showing signs of discomfort. Did you get that right?
What were the clues? Let’s start building up our list of telltale signs. This will help in your learning of dog language.
Mouth Open Vs Mouth Closed
An open mouth with the tongue hanging out is generally a sign of a relaxed dog.
A closed mouth means something else is going on in a dog’s head. We’ll dig into that a bit more later.
Half-Moon Eye or Whale Eye is a sign of distress.
Look at the difference in the dog’s eyes. Dog One’s eyes are showing a lot of white but you can’t see any white at all in Dog Two’s eyes.
This part of dog body language is not so different to human body language. The actress in the shot below is wide-eyed to portray her discomfort as she silently signals for help. She has the advantage of being able to mouth some words too, but her eyes convey distress and urgency.
Why Dog Body Language is So Important
Before we jump into our next example, let’s step back a little and think about why dog body language is important.
It’s important to you for your safety and for the well-being of your dog. If you see a dog that is tense, mouth shut, ears up and forward pointing and eyes fixed in a stare, there could well be imminent danger. Do not let a child approach a dog showing these signs!
If you can read your dog’s discomfort you can take actions to relieve their stress, which will lead to a happier and healthier dog.
Naturally, dog body language is important to dogs because it’s their primary form of communication. The largest part of dog language is body language. Sure, they can bark and growl in a few different ways, but the core of their language is non-verbal. It’s how they talk to each other, so watching dogs meeting and playing together is a great way to learn what’s being said.
By the way, if the verbal dog language, barking, is causing a problem for you, read our article here: How to Stop a Dog Barking.
Let’s get into a few more examples, this time with Dog to Dog interaction.
First Things First, Who is The Boss?
Whenever two dogs meet, they will work out Who is The Boss. This is their normal behavior, and a dog doesn’t really care if they are pack leader or just one of the pack. They just need to know their place.
Get comfortable and watch the following video by Doggy Dan. It’s full of great, real-life examples of dog body language at work.
Take particular note of what happens before they start to play.
OK. What can we add to our list of telltale signs?
Tail between the legs. This means submission. The dog is saying, “You be the boss, I’m not.”
Tail raised. This means confidence. It also exposes the dog’s scent glands so they are stating “I am here.”
A dog placing his head over another dog’s neck. This means “I am the boss.” If the other dog agrees, they will move their head down submissively. If they don’t agree, well, that can get interesting.
Rolling onto the back to expose the stomach. This is submissive and saying, “I am no threat to you”.
Rear end in the air, tail wagging, head and front shoulders down low, front legs out wide. “Let’s play!” This is sometimes called the play bow.
Did you get all that?
It’s important to note that any Who is The Boss dog body language during play is largely meaningless. The important interactions happen before the dog’s bow to each other and say “Let’s play”.
We also saw the 360 degree spin in the video, what Doggy Dan called a Flirty Twirl. This means, “Let’s play more!”
More About the Closed Mouth
Let’s revisit the closed mouth. This can mean your dog has spotted something and is about to act when you see it in combination with these other signs.
- whole body tense
- ears up and forward pointing (if they have that type of ears)
- eyes fixed in a stare
- tail held high and either still or wagging slowly side to side
This is not the time for kids to run over and hug your dog. Your dog is very focused and doesn’t want any interference. It may be that he’s just seen a squirrel and is about to give chase – it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but be careful.
A closed mouth can also indicate uncertainty or curiosity, especially if your dog’s head is tilted to the side.
Sometimes, a closed mouth can be an indicator that your dog is in pain, a doggy version of ‘grit your teeth and bear it’.
Some dogs do naturally tend to keep their mouth shut most of the time. If that’s true for your dog, just watch for the other signs and see if you can learn the difference between a relaxed closed mouth and a tense one.
If your dog normally has their mouth slightly open and you see them close their mouth, it’s a sure sign they are reacting to something.
Remember to keep it simple. Observe your dog’s relaxed look so you can notice when it changes.
The Bad News
Some dog body language signs are not what they seem, but don’t worry, we’ll make them simple too.
We’ll use examples again. Let’s take body shaking.
We all know how a wet dog can shake their whole body to get the water off. (Best to stand clear or you’ll take a shower).
But what does a body shake mean when your dog is dry? What does that mean in dog language?
Dogs use the body shake to let off stress. If you watched Doggy Dan’s video to the end you will have seen Inca do a body shake when she was being reprimanded. Dogs literally ‘shake it out‘, just like that pop song you may have heard.
If your dog is dry and they do a body shake, they are doing it to deal with some emotion. It might be frustration if they can’t get what they are wanting, or it could be to bring down their excitement if they think you’re about to take them for a walk.
Watch for the dry body shake. Whenever you see it try to work out why your dog feels the need to shake. You might be surprised at what you find.
How about yawning?
If your dog is tired and ready for bed, a yawn is just a yawn. Or if you just yawned, they might mirror it.
Otherwise it’s another technique your dog uses to control his emotions, especially if they are uncomfortable or nervous. Yawning helps your dog calm themselves. Even puppies will use a yawn to deal with situations.
Just like with the dry body shake, watch for yawning as a sign that your dog needs to bleed off some emotional energy. Work out what is causing the stress or conflict. You may be able to fix it and give your dog a better life as a result.
Take a Load Off
One big cause of stress for a dog is when they think they are responsible for the pack. It’s a big job. They need to protect and worry about all the pack members, and that includes your family. You saw in Doggy Dan’s video how happy Odin was to be a follower. He could just relax and play and leave pack-management to someone else.
Dogs are always working out Who Is The Boss and they’ll be testing you whether you know it or not. More on that later. Let’s recap what we’ve learnt so far.
Dog Body Language to Watch For – Our List of Tell-Tale Signs
- The big whole body wag. “I’m happy. I’m here. Let’s do something.”
- Whale eye or half-moon eye. “Get me out of here!”
- Open relaxed mouth. “I’m feeling fine.”
- Closed mouth (if that isn’t their normal relaxed look). “Don’t bother me, I’m focused on that thing.”
- Closed mouth and tense body, intense stare. “I’m about to take action!”
- Closed mouth but no obvious focus. It could be a sign of pain.
- Head tilted to one side. “What IS that?”
- The dry body shake. “Shake it off, shake it off…”
- Yawning when not tired. “I’m a bit stressed or conflicted (or maybe excited). I need to calm down.”
When they are with other dogs, it’s either about Who Is the Boss, or playing.
- Tail held high. “I’m confident. If I’m not in charge I probably should be.”
- Tail between the legs. “I’m no threat. I’m not the boss.”
- Roll on back and expose belly. “I’m REALLY no threat.”
- Head above the other dogs neck. “I’m the boss of YOU.”
- Head down looking up sideways. “Yes, you are the boss of me.”
- The play bow. “Let’s play.” The other dog answers with their own play bow to start the games.
- The flirty twirl. “Come on, play with me more!”
Is Your Dog Having Fun?
This one is so obvious when you think about it, but it’s also very easy to miss. You can be so intent on watching all the little interactions when dogs are playing that you miss the big picture.
If a dog keeps coming back for more, they like what’s going on!
Dog play can look like one dog is getting bullied, but if that dog keeps coming back for more you have nothing to worry about. They are having fun.
How simple was that one?
A Final Word
If your dog is talking to you in dog body language with lots of yawns, half-moon eyes, dry body shakes or other more serious stress indicators like chewing themselves, you need to take action. You have to be absolutely certain that your dog does not think that they are your pack leader.
Dog’s shouldn’t have to manage humans. It’s just too hard for them, but it’s what they think they have to do if they are the pack leader of the house. Make sure that you are the pack leader the gentle and easy way by following Doggy Dan’s 5 Golden Rules. Click through on our link below to learn more now.