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Understanding your dog’s body language

What’s your dog saying when she puts her ears flat or when she slaps the ground with her front paws? Understanding your pet’s behavioral cues means tapping into the unspoken language that dogs (and wild relatives, such as wolves and coyotes) use to communicate with each other. Here we’ll examine a few basics of canine body language to help you better communicate with your pet.

The Relaxed, Happy Dog

When dogs communicate, they do so with their whole bodies—from their general stance and posture to the position of their ears, tails, and mouths. When happy and relaxed, a dog’s stance is loose: ears are up but not forward, head is high, tail is down but not tucked, and mouth is open. This is the approximate stance of a calm and approachable dog.

The Curious Dog

In stance, the curious dog resembles the relaxed animal. Though she may lean slightly forward, with her ears also pointed forward, she is gathering information about her environment. Generally, the curious dog’s eyes are wide and her mouth closed. Her tail may be stretched straight behind her, moving lightly but not openly wagging.

The Playful Dog

A happy, playful dog may assume a “puppy stance” with her hindquarters raised, tail eagerly wagging, and front paws stretched out before her. If she’s excited and wants to play, she may slap the ground with her front paws or try to tease you (or another dog) into chasing her.

Pup in a playful stance

The Fearful Dog

When a dog is afraid, its head is typically lowered, with ears back. As her fear level rises, her pupils will dilate. If she senses and immediate threat, the hackles (hairs between her shoulders) may be raised. At this point, she is deciding whether to run or fight. If she senses the need to fight, she may curl back her lips in a snarl or may vocalize a growl or low moan. A dog displaying this fight-or-flight behavior should not be approached.  

The submissive dog

A dog that is in full submission may roll onto its back, with tail tucked and ears flattened back. She will not meet your gaze. The corners of her mouth are turned down. She may stress-urinate. In terms of pack behavior she is deferring to a higher-status animal, and is awaiting “permission” to stand.

The dominant dog

A dominant dog will assume a forward-leaning stance, front legs locked, ears up and forward. Her hackles may be raised. Her tail--hairs stiff and bristled—may wag in short, fast strokes. She has decided that she can handle any opposition through aggression—prepared to fight if necessary.

Dog Behavior During Illness

When your dog is ill, you may notice a change in her behavior. She may seek to be alone and may shun being touched. She may display aspects of submissive behavior, but may show aggression if painful body parts are sensitive or painful. She will be less amenable to being handled.

Knowing your pet’s typical healthy behavior can help you gauge the severity of her illness. A normally gregarious dog that shuns contact and becomes aggressive may be in pain—suggesting that a trip to the veterinarian is necessary.

Hopefully with these basics of canine body language in mind, you can better understand what your dog is feeling and communicating to you and the outside world.

Cecily Kellogg is a pet lover who definitely has crazy cat lady leanings. Her pets are all shelter rescues, including the dog, who is scared of the cats. She spent eight years working as a Veterinary Technician before becoming a writer. Today she writes all over the web, including here at Figo.

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