Dogs talk to us all the time, but too often we have no idea what they’re trying to tell us. In this article, you will learn how to correctly interpret what they are saying using body language and how to avoid unpleasant misunderstandings.
“Cooper aggressively attacks our cat!” Pete told me on the phone.
I didn’t answer right away. Cooper? Aggressive? It didn’t make sense. Pete had recently adopted Cooper from a rescue operation that left the little mix of Dachshunds happily living in a foster home with another dog and two cats.
I asked Pete to describe Cooper’s behavior instead of using words like “aggressive”.
“He barked a lot,” replied Pete, “and it was very loud.”
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Did Cooper attack the cat? Snap at him?
No, he had just barked.
And no wonder. Cooper had only seen the cat twice in the week he lived at Pete’s house. He was excited, surprised, and unsure, so of course he barked.
The dog’s body language is complex and subtle, and people often misinterpret what their dogs are saying. Few of us have ever learned to “talk” or “read” dogs, but understanding what our pets are trying to communicate is key to understanding their behavior.
Let’s focus on what is perhaps the least accurately used adjective when describing dog behavior: “aggressive”. I’ve heard people use it when recommending a 10 week old puppy who playfully nibbles on the feet and legs of the children in the family. Most of the time I hear people using it to describe a barking dog.
“How do you know he’s barking aggressively?” I always ask.
And the typical answer is, “Because he was barking.”
Imagine every time you spoke someone assumed you were thinking about attacking them!
Now let’s eliminate the division between what dogs do when they show signs of aggression and what they do when they are just … well … dogs.
Signs of aggressive dog body language
Dog communication is mostly non-verbal; They “talk” to their bodies. Here are signs of the dog’s body language that could potentially indicate aggressive intentions (if you’re doing any of the following, at least give the dog some space):
• Forward-facing posture
• Rigid body
• Tail above the horizon, possibly stiff, possibly wagging
• Ears up and forward (look at the base of the ear with the ears clipped)
• Wrinkles or ridges around the eyes and lips
• Direct view
• Raised heels (hair on the dog’s back)
As you can see, when a dog is threatened with aggression, its body tends to be stiff and forward. He can also bare his teeth, growl, or bark.
Let’s compare this to a dog who has kind intentions:
• Relaxed body, bent, or wobbly (think of puppies)
• Soft eyes
• Tail below the horizon, often loosely wagging
• Relaxed ears
• Open your mouth carefully
In this case, the dog’s body looks relaxed and curvy.
An often overlooked factor that can lead to aggressive behavior if ignored is stress. Knowing when your dog is showing signs of stress is extremely important so that you can remove him from the situation or help him deal with it.
Signs of stress
Imagine walking your dog in the park and a dog you have never met before is approaching (we will assume that both dogs are on a leash). Don’t take it for granted that your dog wants to meet the other dog. Observe the dog’s body language to see how he feels about the situation.
• Previously opened mouth suddenly closes
• Ears recede
• “Scales” or scales are displayed
• The tail rises above the horizon
• The yawn begins
• Tongue flicks as if licking his lips
• Turns away completely from the approaching dog (or turns away only from eyes or head).
• Starts scratching or sniffing
If your dog exhibits any of these behaviors, proceed with caution. Respect what he tells you, namely: “I need some space!” Move your dog out of the way of the oncoming dog and let him watch the strange dog at a stress-free distance. How do you know how far that is? Watch your dog again; his body language will tell you. The stressful behavior disappears and you will notice a noticeable softening or relaxation of his face and body.
Another important point to remember: like human behavior, dog behavior is fluid and can change in the blink of an eye. Whenever your dog finds himself in a new situation, pay attention to what he is trying to tell you with his body language.
By carefully observing the dog’s body language, you can learn to “dog talk” and keep your pet safe and happy.
It took Cooper and the cat a lot of time and patience, but now they sleep next to each other on Pete’s bed at night!