The Secret Dog Language
THE SECRET DOG LANGUAGE
There’s a fascinating silent world of communication that will open up to you if you just look at your dog. Dogs are communicating with us and other dogs more than we realise. Whilst we’re obviously aware that barking, wagging tails and snarls are ways for dogs to communicate, they’re saying
much more using their bodies, and displaying the secret dog language.
TALKING BODY LANGUAGE
What do we mean by the secret dog language? “Bodies” speak volumes, not just canine but everybody; we use body language all the time but are often not too good at reading it. For example, we may fold our arms when in the presence of someone we don’t want to get too close to, creating a barrier. We do this subconsciously.
There are a huge array of human body signals, but unless we’re taught about them, most of us aren’t good at knowing what they mean. Usually, dogs instinctively know when to back off or when to go nearer to another dog because of the way the other dog reacts to them and reading the secret dog language. If we understand the secret dog language it will help us to communicate better and understand what’s going on emotionally with our dogs.
The secret dog language of the body includes the way the body is held, the way it moves, the expression of the face; sometimes it’s accompanied by vocal sounds and sometimes not. All parts of the body are used – head, eyes, lips, eyebrows, legs and torso. The tail has a language of its own, and those with docked tails or those who’ve lost them to injury or disease are at a disadvantage when it comes to signalling intent.
The secret dog language. Wagging the entire back end is seen in these dogs, and it signals one that is “happy” and eager to say hello or play a game. We need to understand that not every movement is body language. A dog going for a walk with its owner is moving its body but is not communicating anything. It’s just moving. However, if the dog stopped stock-still and stared at another dog, it would be saying something.
We must keep in mind that some dogs are less adept at reading or using signals due to artificial selection. For example, a dog that has floppy ears cannot point his ears far forward as compared to a dog with pointed ears. I discussed the importance of socialisation in my previous article, and it’s due to the various shapes and sizes that dogs come in that puppies need to learn how to communicate and understand signals from other types of dogs.
FACES AND THEIR EXPRESSIONS
Faces say so much, and it’s the altering of the expression which gives us a better understanding of
what dogs are saying and feeling. Mouth – The mouth can convey relaxation/happiness, anger or fear, apprehension and attention to something happening; the way it reacts may be a result of underlying emotional responses.
The secret dog language. We’ve all seen our dogs in a relaxed or happy state. Their mouths are relaxed and possibly open, and there’s no discernible tension in the muscles around the mouth. However, if the dog is paying attention to something, his mouth will be closed. Should a threat be perceived, his mouth will be closed tight, or he may curl up his lips to show his teeth. The more teeth that are shown, and especially if the gums are seen, the more chance the dog is signalling aggression.
This could be followed by a low rumbling growl that can escalate into a full-on snarl followed by a bite, if the dog’s feeling threatened. Dogs also use their tongues as communication. When they’re feeling uneasy about something and would prefer more space, they tend to lick their lips. They may also lick their lips to calm down a situation.
They also yawn when they’re experiencing a stressful situation. As an example of this, a dog might not understand what an owner is asking of him in a training situation and will yawn. Eyes – Staring is a form of communication. Is it a form of confrontation? Other dogs will usually look away from a dog that’s staring at it to diffuse the situation or to avoid conflict.
If a dog feels uneasy about an approach by another dog or person, it will either stare, as a warning, or it’ll look away, depending on the situation. This might include sniffing the ground as a way to avoid eye contact. The eyes can be relaxed, wide, dilatating, staring or showing the whites (otherwise known as “whale-eye”). They show relaxation, attention, uneasiness, fear or anger. The secret dog language.
A furrowed brow usually accompanies any feelings of uneasiness about a situation. I do need to point out that if you have a bond with your special dog at home, your dog may tend to make long eye contact with you. This is not to be confused with a confrontational stare.
You’ll notice that a loving gaze won’t have any tension in the face muscles and that the look is “soft”. Ears – These too convey messages about how a dog is feeling. They can be relaxed or pointing in a direction of something that has its attention. They may prick far forward or pin down and backwards if they feel threatened.
If a dog is relaxed or happy his body posture will be neutral. If he’s feeling uneasy, his weight will be distributed to the back legs, sometimes accompanied with a lowering of the body. If the dog is annoyed and confident, his weight will be distributed to his front legs. Raised hackles (hair standing up on its back) indicate that the dog is aroused or excited.
Artificial selection has interfered with the natural tail carriage. Some breeds’ tails are curled up over the back, such as the Pug or Pomeranian; some are slunk to the ground, such as can be found on Golden Retrievers or German Shepherds. The tail can be held straight horizontally, up and over the back, or tucked between the legs.
The tail is communicating something whether it’s moving or not. A tail held horizontally usually indicates that the dog is confident or neutral. If the tail is held lower, it could indicate nervousness, fear or submission. If it’s held high, it could indicate arousal. The accompanying wag of the tail gives us more insight into what it means; however, we understand that when a dog tucks his tail, he’s afraid.
We’ve all seen our dogs greet us when we get home – their tails are wagging frantically from side to side. Some recent research has indicated that a dog wags his tail more prominently to the right if he’s greeting his owner or someone he likes (if the dog is facing you, it’ll be wagging to your left) (Stillwell, 2016).
However, if a tail is vertically straight or slightly down, accompanied by a slow, stiff wag, it could mean that the dog is feeling uneasy or trying to interpret what’s going on. You may notice this when the dog is greeting another unknown dog. He’s trying to figure out if the other dog will become a friend or foe. If he doesn’t like the other dog, he may just walk away from it.
THE DOG AS A WHOLE…
In order to read the secret dog language effectively, we need to look at the body as a whole. Relaxed faces and open mouths, accompanied by even weight distribution and horizontal tails, indicate a happy
dog. Fearful dogs will have their mouths closed, eyes wide and avoiding contact, ears pinned
down and backwards, with their weight distributed to the back legs and a tucked tail.
An aroused and angry dog will have his mouth closed tight or showing teeth, ears pricked forward,
intense eye contact, weight distributed forward, and a highheld tail. If you’re interested in
learning more, the book by Victoria Stillwell, The Secret Language of Dogs, comes highly
Make a habit of it to read the secret dog language by observing your dog’s behaviour. Also remember to give your dog the best food that you can afford for their well-being. They will also eat less because of the fact that higher quality food contains more nutrients and good stuff.
By Celia Forsyth ADIPCBM (UK), Canine Behaviour Specialist (Accredited Canine Behaviourist and
Trainer – SABCAP), Pet Sense College/Happy Pack Dog Training and Behaviour Management