Dog Body Language
People communicate through words and gestures. It comes to us like second nature. Words allow us to experiment, to invent, to remember, and to connect. But because people rely so heavily on words, we may sometimes overlook the fact that dogs also have a language system that is just as complex, rich, and sophisticated. While we vary our tone and pitch to convey emotions, dogs use their tails, ears, muscle tension, eyes, and more. These subtle changes in their bodies paint an incredibly rich picture of how they want to interact with the environment. With their bodies, dogs are always telling us how they feel.
At first, understanding dog body language can feel overwhelming. Here are three key themes to help you expedite your understanding of body language:
1. Center of mass
First ask yourself, where is the dog holding its center of mass? A dog's center of mass tells us about his general emotional state and about whether the dog wants to interact with or avoid the environment. Because dogs carry more mass on their front legs, their centers of mass should be in the middle of their chest (indicated below by the orange arrow). This gives the appearance that the dog is leaning slightly forward when s/he is relaxed and at ease.
- A dog reluctant to interact with the environment, or a fearful dog, will place its center of mass back on its haunches. Fearful dogs commonly sit, lay down, or visibly lean backwards.
- Conversely, dogs interested or excited by their environment will lean forward, pushing their center of mass far forward. They will commonly lean forward or even stand on two legs and jump.
Next, look at the eyes. Try to gauge the "hardness" or "softness" of their eyes by focusing on their eye muscles. Dogs have eyes protected by intricate muscles that allow them to blink, squint, open wide, etc. These muscles are also the key to creating "hard" and "soft" eyes. A relaxed dog will have "soft", round-almond shaped eyes, characterized by minimal muscle tension. A relaxed eye is partially closed so that the eye whites, or the sclera, cannot be seen.
- Worried, scared, or nervous dogs may clench the muscles around their eyes (like a human frown). These "hard" eyes are characterized by a flattened shape.
- Nervous dogs may also open their eyes wide into an O-shape, relaxing the muscles enough to expose their sclera.
- Stressed or excited dogs may tighten their eye muscles for staring. They often pull up the muscles at the tip of the almond-shape, resulting in "frown lines" in their forehead.
One of the easiest body parts to read is the dog's tail. Dogs' tails are held in very clear positions: straight up, to the side, at wither's height, tucked between the legs, or casually dropped. The key is understanding the tail's position as well as the tail's movement. Here are some key tips:
- Relaxed dogs hold their tails in different positions due to breed differences. So, focus on base of the tail. A relaxed dog will hold the base of his tail parallel with his back. He may wag his tail in broad sweeping waves.
- Scared or nervous dogs will tuck their tails low, sometimes between their legs. Nervous dogs will also do very frantic small wags, known as "tail twitching".
- Excited and aroused dogs hold their tails erect, often still or twitching. An erect, still tail combined with weight forward and hard eyes is often a sign of pre-aggression.