Sit. Stay. Heel. Come. Don’t eat my sofa cushions. We spend a lot of time making our dogs learn our language. Isn’t it only fair we learn theirs?
Dogs have a complex communication system. Being able to understand it is an important skill for anyone who owns or works with dogs.
And if you want to study canine body language, there are few better places to do so than at the local dog pound. Every dog reacts to the experience of being in a shelter differently, and you will encounter every dog behavior imaginable. This post will show you clips of shelter dogs and explain, as best as we can tell, what those dogs are trying to communicate.
I’ve been a dog trainer/shelter volunteer for almost a decade, and I pretty much speak dog as a second language. As your instructor, I’d like to welcome you to Dog Speak 101. Pay attention and take notes. There may be a test later.
First, five basic rules of Dog Speak:
1. It’s about the big picture.
Dogs use their entire bodies to communicate. When a dog wants to say something, he’ll use everything he has, from the position of his feet to the expression on his face. So you can’t just look at one feature and decide what he’s saying.
Example: Fido bares his teeth at you. He might be warning you to stay away or he might want you to pet him. Check his expression: is it “soft?” Are his eyes squinty? Are his ears relaxed? Check the tension in his body: is he all wiggly? Then he’s probably giving you a submissive/appeasement grin. If his expression is “hard,” eyebrows scrunched, ears rigid, and his body is still and tense, you better watch out.
Bottom line: take the whole dog into consideration when making judgment calls. Fido might seem to be saying one thing with, say, his tail, while making a qualifying statement with the look on his face. Speaking of tails:
2. A wagging tail always means a happy dog. NOT.
“Sparky was wagging his tail and he STILL bit that other dog at the park. He’s so weird.” If I had a nickel for every time I heard that line, I would have enough to retire and go build my dream rescue dog ranch in the mountains somewhere.
If there is one thing I would teach the world about dogs, just one thing, it’s this:
A wagging tail does not equal a friendly, safe animal.
The only thing it indicates is that the dog is excited or interacting with something/someone. Depending on the type of tail wag and how it’s paired with other communication signals, it could indicate:
•Intense concentration. Like a person sticking their tongue out the corner of their mouth when focusing on a complicated task.
•Happiness/Friendliness. “I just met you but you are my bestest friend. Let me love yoouuu!”
•Apprehension. “Whoa. This might be good or it might be bad. Better be prepared for anything.”
•Anxiety. “Please don’t hurt me.”
•A fear-based threat. “I don’t want to hurt you, pal. Back off!”
•A challenge-based threat. “Go ahead. Make my day.”
Now you see how it totally makes sense that Sparky’s tail was wagging before he went all Cujo at the dog park? Basically, a tail wag means nothing and it can mean anything. Please refer to rule no. 1.
3. It’s all a hell of a lot more subtle than you might think.
We always notice when dogs use big, dramatic gestures. Tail wagging like mad. Growling ferociously. Peeing submissively. Snapping at a too-curious toddler (boy, do we notice that one!). We sometimes assume stuff like this is all dogs have to say.
And so we miss the other 90% of everyday dog speak.
From a human’s perspective, canine communication is incredibly subtle. Shifting weight from the front feet to the back. Rotating one ear. Holding her breath. A quick nose lick. The dog thinks she’s being loud and clear, but we don’t always catch the message.
4. Calming signals are a beautiful, beautiful thing.
What? You’ve never heard of calming signals? Just you wait, grasshopper. Just you wait. I remember when I first learned that calming signals were a thing. I started looking at dogs in a whole new light. It completely changed how I train and interact with these critters.
So. Calming signals (also called cutoff or stress signals) are some of those very subtle communication behaviors. Including but not limited to:
Turning away, yawning, lip licking, shaking off like she’s trying to dry herself, scratching, stretching, blinking repeatedly and/or slowly, dipping the head, sneezing, lifting a paw like a bird dog on point.
These behaviors are intended to diffuse and deflect tension, and dogs offer them when they are in potentially uncomfortable situations. Dogs seem to use calming signals in one of three ways:
•To say, “Hi, I’m not a threat. Let’s be friends.”
•To say, “I’m really uncomfortable. Please leave me alone.”
•To calm themselves. “It’s okay. I’m okay. Everything’s gonna be okay.”
Humans can use calming signals to talk to dogs, too. There is something very cool about literally “speaking dog” to get through to a shutdown, fearful shelter dog that no one else has been able to help. You may feel like a fool yawning and batting your eyes at a dog, but the dog will think you’re amazing.
5. The only time an unaligned back is a good thing.
When observing a dog, the first thing I notice is the positioning of the spine, neck and head. This is probably the most overlooked part of Dog Speak, but it’s very important. For the most part, you want a dog to greet you with his back curved slightly to the side, so he looks like a furry cashew from above. A dog with a curved spine is almost always in a friendly, or at least non-threatening, mood.
This dog has his spine, neck and nose in alignment. Imagine a straight line from the base of the tail to the tip of the nose. This indicates alertness. It could also be a threat or a defensive position (Dogs never approach each other head-on unless they’re being rude or trying to pick a fight). On its own, an aligned body is not something to worry about. As with all things Dog Speak, pay attention to what it’s combined with.
Green Means Go: Behavior that Indicates Friendliness
Since these dogs are greeting me through kennel bars, it’s hard to completely avoid aligning their bodies straight to me (though they do try). Instead, you can judge their intentions by the lack of tension in their bodies and limbs. They’re all soft angles and soft lines. Their spines and shoulders are, to use the official term, all wiggly.
Face: Almond shaped or squinty eyes, blinking normally; mouth relaxed; forehead smooth; flicking out the tongue or licking the nose; sneezing; If they make eye contact, they don’t hold it for long.
Ears: can be forward and up, lowered as you approach; relaxed, “flickering” up and down a lot – i.e. the opposite of pinned down or held still.
Tail: Held low or halfway up; wagging either slow and relaxed or fast and “spazzy”
Movement: wiggly shoulders and back; “tap dancing” with the front feet, reaching out a paw
Yellow Means Slow: Fearful, Anxious or Cautious Behavior
Extreme stress sometimes looks like calmness. When a dog realizes they have no control over a scary situation, they might “shut down:” they go still and stop protesting. In other words, they give up. That’s what you’ll see in the first clip of this video.
In less extreme cases, a fearful dog might be curious about you, without wanting to really interact with you. They’ll slink forward, stretch their necks out to sniff. Their back legs will be out behind them, ready to leap away on an instant’s notice. A dog trying to avoid confrontation will not make eye contact. If a cautious dog does make prolonged eye contact, it is a warning and you may get bit if you don’t listen.
Face: “whale eye:” wide eyes, whites visible; corners of the mouth may be pulled back in a “smile”; eyebrows may be furrowed in a worried expression; blinking rapidly or not blinking at all; eyes half lidded, like she’s falling asleep; yawning, lip licking
Ears: up and to the sides, as if to catch every possible sound; pinned against the head
Tail: Held low and still, may be tucked between the legs; if a dog is trying to appease an aggressor, tail may wag in tight, fast movemenents
Movement: Very slow, like slow motion; body positioned to run away if necessary; an anxious dog may move in fast, jerky motions
Red Means You’re Gonna Get Bit: Fear, Aggression and Warning Behavior
Fear in two categories? Yes, because most aggression is fear based. When an animal is afraid, it has three options: Fight, Flight, or Shut Down. In a kennel, Flight is not an option. Some dogs will shut down, as seen in the Yellow video. Others will defend themselves.
The first few clips are of dogs being loud and clear. They are saying, in no uncertain terms, that if you don’t leave them alone you will get hurt. But the final clip is of a behavior you really have to watch out for. This dog is showing very subtle warning behavior. He’s staring at me with wide, unblinking eyes. He’s very still. Ears are forward. Unlike the others, his body is not aligned straight at me – I think he’s conflicted. He’s not sure if he’s going to retreat or fight. The stillness is important, because it often leads to a bite. I won’t spoil the ending, but let’s just say I’m glad there was a gate between us. (For further breakdown of the subtle warnings to a bite, read this)
Face: Corners of the mouth are forward; nose may be wrinkled; barking with teeth visible; eyes may be wide or normal; hard stare with no blinking; whale eye
Ears: The base of the ear is rigid
Tail: Wagging fast, usually high above the back; may be completely still
Movement: Body is tense so movements are jerky; legs are stiff; head, neck and back aligned at target; a conflicted dog will probably stand at an angle, to retreat if necessary; freezing, holding her breath (this indicates a bite is imminent)
Dog Speak 101