How to Read Your Dog's Mind: A Guide to Body Language

Table of Contents

We have a special bond with our dogs. Why shouldn’t we? It's the product of the unconditional love we share with our pups. Many of us even talk to our dogs, and whether or not they actually understand us, they often respond with loving tail-wags and kisses.

But what about when our dogs are talking to us? How can we learn to understand them?

Hear No Evil

Listen to the tone of your dog’s voice. Not all barks are the same. There are the "excited" barks when a dog runs past your house, and then there are the plaintive wails of “let me into the TV room with you!” One bark alerts you to an issue your dog wants you to know about, while the other bark is trying to manipulate you. The latter might even be punctuated with a few whines or a bark that trails off into a moan.

Some barks are playful: these can be higher pitched and in a series. Dogs can do this with one another or with the people in their lives, and it can be a sign that they are very comfortable with their surroundings.

Other barks indicate trouble: if the dog senses danger, the barks can be sharper with a few pauses in between. If an intruder shows up, then the barks indicate territoriality: these are also sharp, but they may have a few growls peppered in there.

Listen to your dog and pay attention to context. Over time you will learn a great deal about how your dog uses his voice to communicate.

See no Evil

The real giveaway to your dog’s thoughts and feelings is body language.  Most dogs love to meet-and-greet in an up-close and personal manner, so tt’s best to know what’s going on.

When dogs meet people or other dogs, they like to sniff and circle. A dog will want to circle a person and sniff hands, legs, and occasionally the crotch area. (It happens). They aren’t trying to be rude; they’re just checking you out. They do the same with other dogs. If off-leash, they will circle one another and sniff each other. On-leash this can be stressful for dogs because they aren’t able to circle each other.

The stress of being confined to a leash can lead to some “leash aggression” – this doesn’t necessarily mean your dog wants to fight another dog. It just means that your dog can’t get a full sense of the other dog. This doesn't mean that you should remove the leash if you are outside on a walk. If you see signs of stress during a meeting or you know that your dog does better meeting off-leash, just keep a safe distance and let the other person know they can't play right now. You can always ask to set up an off-leash playdate in a safe and stress-free environment.

A wagging tail that moves quickly shows excitement. You can see this when you come home after a day at work, or even after twenty minutes at the store. Your pup is thrilled you returned. This is also common when hunting dogs who are tracking a close scent. The opposite of this is when a dog’s tail is low, often between the hind legs. This is a sign of stress or fear and commonly occurs when a dog visits new places or somewhere like the vet’s office. If a dog is in trouble, say you have found your favorite running shoes chew up, your dog may approach you in this way. It doesn’t signal guilt, but it does show submission.

Pay attention to how your dog’s tail moves when meeting another dog. You may hear new noises, but if the tail is wagging quickly, then the sounds are generally playful. If the sound is accompanied by a low tail, then be sure to keep him on a leash and at a safe distance from the other animal.

Next, check the ears. Are they up? This means your dog is alert to something – perhaps it’s something outside, perhaps it’s your dinner. When the ears are in a neutral position, this means he is relaxed. There isn’t too much going on that bothers him or stimulates them. If their ears are pinned back, this could signal fear. Be aware, if the ears are twitching – that can indicate some anxiety coupled with excitement. The dog is trying to figure out what is going on. The ears can telegraph so many feelings. While not recommended, this is one reason guard dogs’ ears have historically been clipped. Taking away the intruder's ability to see what a dog is really feeling makes it much harder for the person to gauge how to react.

Check out your dog’s hackles when they get excited. This is the hair from the base of their neck going down the spine. Some dogs’ hackles stand up straight giving them a “Mohawk” look – this indicates excitement, fear, or intense interest in something new. Evolutionary theory posits that hackles served as a visual cue for other dogs to read as a “go away” sign.

The last thing to look for is teeth. There should be no confusion here: if a dog bares his teeth, that is a sign of aggression. That dog needs to be under the control of a handler and kept a safe distance away from other dogs.

Your dog is going to have different body language with you than with other people. It’s good to know when your dog is comfortable with human friends and other dogs to avoid any unwanted conflicts. On the flip side, don’t assume that dogs are having a fight. They may be engaged in play wrestling with one another.

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