Why do we need to understand our dog’s body language?

As dog owners we have an expectation (or sometimes just a wish!) that our dogs listen to us - and it is absolutely vital that we return the favour. Dogs don’t speak our language, but this doesn’t mean that they aren’t able to communicate with us. Dogs have a very sophisticated repertoire of non-verbal communication signals, but it’s not as simple as a waggy tail = a happy dog. There are plenty of clues that are easy to miss. By becoming fluent in your dog’s subtle body language, you’ll be able to understand more accurately their needs, improve your bond and even overcome your training struggles.

"more subtle clues that tell us
our dogs are uncomfortable"

We don’t usually have any trouble spotting the ‘big’ signs that our dogs are frightened, anxious or scared. We understand that if they cry, growl, bark, snap or bite that they aren’t happy about the given situation. But what is so often missed are the more subtle clues that tell us our dogs are uncomfortable. There are many very small (but very important) body language signals that come well before the ‘big’ displays of emotion, and if we can learn to spot these we can do something to change the situation and more effectively support them. If your dog is reactive or has any other anxiety/fear based conditions, it is absolutely vital that you can read their body language in order to make sure your training is effective.

What does a relaxed dog look like?

We all want our dogs to be happy and relaxed as much as possible. Here are some signs your dog is happy and relaxed:

  • Their body is loose and fluid
  • Their tail is hanging down relaxed, or wagging loosely
  • Their mouth is slightly open, and you might be able to see their bottom teeth
  • Their head is held high
  • Their ears will be in a neutral position (specific to their breed and individual ears)

What are the signs that a dog might be anxious or nervous?

When dogs are anxious, nervous or unsure their body language will immediately change. This might be to consciously communicate how they are feeling, to diffuse a situation, or to calm themselves down. Here are some signs to look out for, which indicate that your dog might be feeling nervous, unsure or anxious:

  • Lip or nose licking
  • Yawning
  • ‘Whale Eye’ (this occurs when a dog turns their head away, whilst keeping their eyes on the object/person they are concerned about)
  • Itching, scratching or grooming
  • Shaking off
  • Panting
  • Stretching
  • Low head position
  • Tailed tucked between legs
  • Slow, deliberate and low wagging tail
  • Frozen or tense body
  • Frozen or tense body

If there are signs that your dog is nervous or anxious, it is important that you either give your dog space or change the situation in order to help them feel more comfortable and prevent them becoming more worried. 

Putting it all together 

Context is key when we observe body language and no one signal can definitively tell you how your dog is feeling. Not every yawn, itch, shake off or lip lick will mean they are anxious, so it’s vital that you consider the context and whether their behaviour seems ‘normal’ within that context. For example, if your dog has just eaten and they lick their lips, this is normal and nothing to worry about. But if your dog hasn’t eaten, it is repetitively lip licking and yawning when in the car it is likely they are nervous about car travel. 

Written by Kerry Woods - Out of The Woods Dog Training

Kerry has a degree in Animal Behaviour & Welfare as well as being a certified Separation Anxiety Pro Trainer. After working with hearing dogs for deaf people for 3 years and gaining experience working with dogs from 8 weeks old right the way through to placement Kerry now works as a dog training and behaviourist consultant specialising in Separation Anxiety.

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