Just because dogs don’t talk like humans do doesn’t mean they don’t communicate with us.
The primary means of how pups communicate with people, however, isn’t through barking—it's through body language.
Just like most languages, dog body language is very complicated and nuanced. As a puppy parent, it’s important to know some of the basics to better understand what your dog is trying to say or how they're feeling.
Here are some common canine body expressions and what they mean.
You've no doubt seen your dog and other pups “bow” or crouch on their forelimbs when they're playing. These bows are signals that your dog wants to play, and imply that the actions that follow are meant to be playful rather than aggressive.
“Bows essentially are contracts to play and they change the meaning of the actions that follow, such as biting and mounting,” explains Marc Bekoff, Ph.D. in Psychology Today. “They also serve to reinitiate play after there’s a pause in the action … Bows also can be used to tell another dog, ‘I’m sorry I bit you so hard, let’s keep playing.’”
A play bow is often accompanied by a wagging tail. If a dog is in bow position but has a stiff tail or their eyes flat against their head, then they’re saying that they’re nervous, not that they want to play.
Dogs have emotive faces, but the ways they express themselves via their facial features have different meanings than their human counterparts. Take yawning, for example—when we yawn it most likely means we’re tired. When dogs yawn, however, it can also mean that they’re anxious. Dogs can also lick their lips when nervous, though they also do so after a yummy meal, so it’s important to keep context in mind when reading your pup’s actions.
Eye contact is also an important cue for dogs.
“A dog will divert his eyes away from you or another dog if he's trying to avoid a confrontation,” explains Jo Myers, DVM. “Direct eye contact is not always intended to issue a threat or challenge, but it can be when accompanied by other elements of body language.”
Dogs may stare at us sometimes, for example, to read our cues or to try to get our attention to take them outside to go to the bathroom.
“Dogs are hardwired to interact with us and adopt strategies that get us to do things they find pleasing,” says Dr. Myers. “In other words, they like to train us and will pick up quickly on body language that proves effective for manipulating our behavior. Begging is a good example of this. Even though he wouldn't ‘speak’ to another dog this way, your dog will also quickly learn to stare at the door when he wants to go out or whine if he wants to get your attention, assuming that works.”
Raised hackles—when the hair on the back of your pup stands on edge—is often a sign your dog is worried about a perceived potential threat. In and of itself, however, raised hackles don’t mean your dog will ultimately become aggressive if you handle them properly.
“It's important to understand that if your dog raises his hackles when he is approached by a strange dog, this is not a sign of aggression or of him wanting to attack the approaching dog,” explains Dr. Myers. “If you misinterpret these raised hackles as a sign of aggression and subsequently tell your dog, ‘NO!’ you can unintentionally end up fostering a situation where your dog becomes aggressive towards other dogs.”
Other signs that your dog may be feeling alarm and potentially aggressive is if their tail is raised high with their fur raised or puffed out. The best thing to do in these situations is remove your dog from whatever situation they’re facing and make them feel safe.
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Dog body language goes well beyond these common examples, and there are more in-depth resources out there to help you better communicate with your pup. If you want to understand your dog's behavior more or have any questions about dog body language, chat with a Pawp vet online for free.