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Canine communication 101: Body language is key

The most common way for a dog to communicate is with his or her body. Yes, they speak and exchange information through scent, but when it comes to dogs and people, body language is key.

It’s important to start by discussing the difference between an approachable dog and a dog that would rather be left alone. You want to see a dog that is wiggly and loose. A low, swooping tail wag, minimal eye contact and a slow approach are behaviors you want to see. If a dog is stiff, their weight forward, their tail upright and pulsing, this dog does not want to be approached. Also if a dog is fearful—its tail tucked, cowering as if to make its body smaller--this dog does not want to be approached either. These last two dogs are not bad dogs; they just aren’t feeling comfortable in the situation or might be stressed.

It’s best to try to look at the whole dog from nose-to-tail. The more you can simply observe a dog’s behavior, the better you’ll become at reading signals and understanding dog communication.

Snapshot of behavior:

  • Weight distribution. Weight heavily forward or backward usually indicates a scared dog. The dog going forward is more likely to act aggressively while the dog with the backward weight is trying to flee. When a dog wants to engage, they will be likely be off-balance and wiggly.
  • Wagging tail. A common misconception is that a wagging tail means a happy dog. All a tail wag means is that the dog is excited. Sometimes it means excited to see you and sometimes it means excited with fear and please don’t come any closer. A slow, low wag is what we consider appropriate.
  • Other signals. Yawning, sniffing the ground, shaking off, stretching, turning away—these signals can mean the dog is stressed or is trying to calm him or herself. 

For more information and instruction on canine communication, sign up for the FetchFind, I Love Dogs Badge!


Jaime Migdal, CPDT KA, is the founder and CEO of Fetchfind, a talent recruitment and services organization dedicated to the pet industry.

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