Speaking Dog Language

Often times when we hear about a dog biting or fighting, things seem to happen “all of a sudden”. And before we know it, dogs are fighting, lunging or barking. Believe it or not, it’s likely that a dog isn’t biting or fighting “out of nowhere”, but their body language may be so subtle, that if you don’t know what to look for, you could miss valuable warnings.

Relaxed and Happy

A relaxed and happy dog is delightful to be around. Think of a friendly ole’ golden retriever, if the dog is relaxed their body is doing several things.

  • Mouth: open, panting, “smiling”
  • Eyes: squinty and almond shaped
  • Head: lowering or ears back
  • Body: loose, curvy or wiggly
  • Tail: wagging low and slow
  • Approaching people/dogs: head lowers, tail wagging, turns head away or maintains curviness of body

If you see a dog who is dong the following, this is a dog that is likely social and at ease.As a dog becomes more uncomfortable, you can watch the wiggly, curvy body become increasingly stiff and still.

Uncomfortable and Warning You

On the other end of the spectrum is dog body language that is indicating that a dog is becoming increasingly uncomfortable or stressed. This kind of body language may be fleeting (it lasts a few seconds) and the dog returns to being relaxed, such as when first greeting another dog.  If it lasts for several seconds and could be an indication that the dog is about to tip and aggress.

  • Mouth: closed
  • Eyes: hard and staring or buggy/bulging
  • Head: held high and still
  • Body: Stiff, not loose or wiggly
  • Tail: Plastered or High and stiff
  • Approaching people/dogs: Head is high, body is stiff, hard, direct eye contact and the dog marches front facing with little head lowering

If a dog appropriately warns, they will do the following (often in order)

  1. Body/Head Stiff
  2. Eyes Bugging
  3. Growl
  4. Nose Wrinkle and show teeth, continue growling
  5. Bite (air snapping-puncturing)

If a dog is giving it’s low level warning with stiffness, then growling, and the interaction continues, the dog will continue to escalate in warning. If nothing changes and the dog/person continues the interaction, ignoring the threats, the dog will bite or fight.

Dogs that are very tolerant will warn and warn and warn and not do damage. Dogs with a shorter fuse (you know who you are) may be stiff for a second, growl and bite/fight. Stiffness, if nothing else, is the universal warning.

What to do when you see Red Flags

The best thing to do is to manage your dog, so that your dog is not in situations that test him continually. Real life happens, and that’s not to say that you can avoid every situation when your dog is stiff or still. However, it’s important to note that the old adage “practice makes perfect” describes exactly how dogs get really good at doing what works for them.

At the Dog Park

If a dog is fighting with dogs every trip to the dog park, that dog is rehearsing behavior, and at the first indication of stiffness, call the dog back to you, distract them with a treat, move to another part of the park, but don’t expect the dog to NOT do what is predictable and don’t expect other dogs to put up with this kind of bully behavior. If you see your dog pinning other dogs and standing stiff on top for several seconds, the other dog tail plastered, eyes bulging- yikes- intervene by luring with a treat, calling off, etc.

If your dog is becoming less and less comfortable and friendly at the park or fighting, stop going to the park, go at off peak times or find a park with more space to do long leash walks. Many dogs that are tolerant, but not interested in playing and will avoid dogs and prefer to hang out with people or play ball. This is a huge red flag, it’s likely that this dog isn’t a “dog’s dog”.

Dogs on the Street

“When we say hi on leash, with some dogs he’s fine and with others he sniffs then attacks.” Look at the body language. Is the other dog, soft, social, wiggly, head dipping to say hi? Is your dog wiggly and social or stiff, head high, front marching and tail held hi?

When doing an initial meet and greet do they circle and sniff or remain stiff and eyes bulging? Is your leash tight and tense or loose? If loose, do the stress signals dissipate and one may play bow or do they remain stiff? Generally speaking, if they remain stiff or still, keep walking or call your dog away before you push your luck.

With People Great and Small

If they interact with people and they are stiff, still, mouth closed, eyes locked on, inviting petting from a stranger is not appropriate. If you notice the body language shifting from relaxed to avoidant/stiff, not signs of wiggles around children, remove the dog from the situation. If on the street- keep moving, if at home, crate your dog or put the dog in a bedroom with a chewie to keep him occupied. And if you notice this kind of unsettling behavior and you want to work on it, please work with a professional, certified trainer.

In general, think “loose and curvy” for a relaxed dog and “stiff and still” for a dog saying, “I’m stressed and not happy. Help!” Remember, as our dog’s greatest advocates, they rely on us to not put them in situations where they would be in danger, whether that’s in our own homes or in public. Sometimes, we learn the hard way (after a bite or fight). I urge you to start to really see what your dogs are saying, because body language seldom lies.

by Leigh Siegfried, CPDT
Opportunity Barks Behavior & Training
Leigh Siegfried is a Behavior Counselor and Trainer with Opportunity Barks, offering private lessons and behavior consultations in Northern Virginia and the DC Metro area. Have a training question or want more information? Having trouble at the dog park? She can help.
Visit www.opportunity-barks.com, email info@opportunity-barks.com or call 703-946-3094.