Canids are generally very social species. Dog ancestors hunted and lived in packs, and as such, evolved having a large array of communication signals so that they could do so efficiently and peacefully. Dog body language is still used by our pets and is a useful tool for dogs and humans alike to understand the feelings of each individual.
Dog communication can be broken down in to three main categories: anxiety and appeasement behaviours; loving and friendly behaviours; and play behaviours. Here we will outline the main cues you should look for to find out what your furry friend is thinking.
You’ve probably seen the tell-tale sign that your dog is very excited and wanting to play – the play bow; as this behaviour is so clear it is easily understood. The play bow is where your dog drops his chest to the floor and keeps his rear end high. By dropping into this more vulnerable position, your dog is letting others know that he only has friendly intentions and that he wants to play. This can be followed by a myriad of other behaviours such as barking, jumping and chasing, all of which are your dog’s attempt to get another to join in the fun.
Fear and Anxiety
Fear and anxiety signals move along a scale of increasing severity, at which a dog biting is the most extreme. People can often miss the more subtle warning signals that a dog is trying to give them before they resort to biting, however if you don’t know what to look for then they can be difficult to spot.
There are a lot of signals that your dog will try and give you to tell you that they are not enjoying a situation, and they will increase the intensity and severity of these behaviours if their actions are not improving the situation. If a certain signal has worked previously, your dog is more likely to go straight to that behaviour as they know that lesser signals haven’t previously had an effect. Calming signals, such as slow blinking, lip licking and yawning aren’t very obvious to see, but it is important that you look out for these as you could help remedy a situation before it escalates.
These signals are the most easy to confuse. Often, when people think that their dog is aggressive or angry, it is usually the result of fear. For example, some dogs will growl when you go towards their food bowl whilst they are eating – this is termed food aggression. Nevertheless, it is likely that your dog is feeling anxious that you are trying to take their food away from them, so will try and stop you doing so. Some signals can be confusing, for example a dog may lick you a lot because it really likes to carry out this behaviour, or it could be a sign of appeasement. Also a dog rolling on its back and showing its belly could either be appeasement or a dog REALLY wanting to have his belly rubbed.
Friendly and affectionate signals
Actively happy dogs are quite easy to spot if they have a wagging tail, but there are some more subtle behaviours that dogs show when they are contented. If your dog has relaxed ears and soft facial features this is a great sign that your dog is perfectly happy and relaxed in their current situation.
When you first see your dog in the morning they might do a ‘downward dog’ style stretch towards you, this could be them loosening their muscles ready to get up and go, but dogs also stretch-bow as a way of greeting those they love when they see them.
Dogs are complex communicators, but once you know which behaviours to look for you will have an even better relationship with your dog.