The dog’s body language and facial expressions show how he or she feels. If you own a dog, I strongly encourage you to educate yourself about what your dog is communicating with you. We have all seen our dogs wag their tails. It is the most recognizable emotional expression for a dog. We can compare the tail wag to our human smile, and similarly, the tail wag does not necessarily mean happiness. Just as we can smile because we are nervous, insecure or embarrassed, a dog will also show different emotions with the tail.
In order to find out if the tail wag is a matter of happiness or conflict, pay attention to how the tail is held, how the ears are positioned, and also observe the expressions of the eyes. I will explain this in detail below, but an example would be: A relaxed and content dog generally wags their tail low, whereas a dominant or aggressive dog will wag their tail high.
Many dog bites and behavioural issues could be prevented if people (both owners and non-owners) would learn a dog’s way of communicating. For example, a common but easy to understand mistake is to stare into a dog’s eyes. In the dog world this is often a threatening gesture. I find that people who don’t feel comfortable around dogs do exactly this and can potentially trigger an aggressive behaviour in the dog.
By being able to read your dog, you will gain confidence in knowing their emotional state. This confidence and knowledge can protect you and your dog from situations that potentially could have been dangerous. Knowing your dog’s body language will deepen the relationship you have with each other, and it will benefit everyone involved in meeting your dog(s), including other canines.
The Happy Dog:
A happy dog looks relaxed; all muscles are loose, ears and tail are held naturally. Their tail is wagging low from side to side, or in a circular motion, possibly rapidly if very happy. The dog’s mouth is closed or slightly open with a relaxed expression. Some dogs look as though they are actually smiling.
The Playful Dog:
This dog’s body movements look very happy and bouncy. They twist, turn and leap, possibly around you, to invite you to play. They may be tossing their toys or sticks around. Often a playful dog will play bow. In this position they drop their forelegs to the ground, leaving the hind legs extended and the behind sticking up. This position tells you or another dog that there is no aggression involved, that it’s simply joyful play. The dog’s face looks happy with an open mouth, and they may give a high-pitched happy bark.
The Dominant Dog:
This dog shows a lot of self-confidence and stands tall to look larger. Their weight is on all four feet with neck arched and they appear tense. The ears are up and pointed forward and their tail is high, possibly wagging. Sometimes their hair stands up along the neck and back. Usually they make direct eye contact with another individual. The mouth is likely closed.
The Submissive Dog:
If a dog feels submissive, they want to give the message that there is no threat. While being actively submissive, they make themselves look very small. The tail is held low, possibly wagging back and forth in a quick motion. Their ears are flattened and the neck is low to the ground. They make no direct eye contact with other dogs or individuals.
The Fearful Dog:
A fearful dog will try to look small. With the tail low or tucked between the hind legs, and body hunched, they prefer to escape under furniture. Their posture appears as if there is a heavy weight on the hind legs. Fearful dogs may look directly at the individual they’re afraid of, or they will look away. The whole body appears tense and the dog may yawn often.
The Fearful Aggressive Dog:
This dog holds their body like the above-mentioned fearful dog and will only attack if they have no way of escape. They prefer to quickly nip or bite another dog from behind. The fearful aggressive dog will try to disappear as quickly as possible after nipping or biting an individual.
The Dominant Aggressive Dog:
This dog feels both confident and angry simultaneously. The body is tense, and they hold their head up high. They stare at the other individual, barking or growling in a low voice. The tail is raised, possibly wagging stiffly.
It is fun to develop the skill of reading dogs. Over time it will become easier. Practice the observation of body language on other dogs you meet in the park or on the road. This will deepen your relationship with your dog; your canine will be grateful for the increased understanding and communication.