Canine Body Language

Canine body language is such an important topic that I’ve decided to dedicate an entire webpage to it! The way I see it, living with our dogs is like living with expressive, intelligent, mute souls. Since dogs are not able to speak in human language, they use virtually all of their body parts to communicate with us and with each other. You can learn to decipher some of your dog’s body language, and thereby his emotional and psychological state, by observing changes his ears, eyes, mouth, tail, fur, and overall posture, and these changes speak volumes.

When interacting with your dog, watch his body language carefully. If you reach to pet or hug him and he responds with averted eyes, a yawn, a lick of the lips, freezing up, sniffing the ground, or scratching himself, do him a huge favour: say ”Ok!” and just walk away. He will heave a huge sigh of relief (and probably take a shake break), realizing that you just deciphered his signals and can understand his language, which will go a huge way towards nurturing the trust between the two of you.

While we owners can't possibly hope to decipher every single instance of dog body language, as they can be so quick and so subtle, there are some common signal dogs use that can let us know when they are feeling uncomfortable, fearful, or ready to defend themselves. Turid Rugaas, a pioneer in the field of canine body language, has listed these signals on her webpage. It’s a fascinating topic and worth checking out!

Here are some examples of common body language, broken down by degree of intensity, that can help you decipher your dog's level of stress, excitement, or anxiety.

The Secret Language of Dogs*

*remember, these are in context and based on events the dog may find new, unusual, or threatening

Dogs communicate instinctively using scent and body language. If an unwanted dog or person is approaching, a nervous dog will exhibit numerous different behaviors in order to communicate to the approaching dog/person that he/she is feeling uncomfortable. Some signals are more intense and indicate a higher level of discomfort than others. The entire process can be seen as an ascending staircase, with the dog using Calming Signals (CS) that ascend the staircase from green (low level of discomfort) to orange (save me!) to red (Danger Danger!).

Green-stair signals indicate that the dog is OK, but is communicating CS. This doesn’t automatically mean that you need to step in and referee, but just be aware that the dog is exhibiting low levels of anxiety, arousal, or stress (not always a bad thing—play and learning are stressful, but in a good way), or is communicating to another being (dog, cat, person) to relax and calm down. Green signals include such things as lip licking, glancing or looking away, yawning, blinking, sneezing, teeth chattering, scratching, sniffing the ground, lifting a paw, sitting, puffing cheeks, refusal to eat or take treats, stretching, sniffing/licking hindquarters, and lying down (several of these behaviors will usually happen in a sequence if stress/arousal are involved).

Orange-stair signals are when the dog gets quieter and his body becomes still; these signals are the dog’s attempt to increase distance between himself and whatever is making him nervous, fearful or anxious. At this point it is important to step in to remove the stressful element (or the dog) before it escalates. Orange signals may include moving in slow motion, stopping, turning away, ears flat back on the head, dilated pupils, showing the whites of the eyes, hard stare, pacing, closed-mouth breathing or holding their breath, stiffening or freezing, drooling, trembling, looking away, hair shedding, sniffing/licking hindquarters, and holding still.

Red-stair behavior is where you’ll see the overt precursors we’re all familiar with—growling, snarling, snapping, and then biting. The mouth may be open at this point, with the front teeth (incisors) showing.

These signals are not all-inclusive by any means; individual dogs will use varying combinations of calming signals based on what has worked for them in the past. (This is one reason a dog sometimes feels he has to skip all the green- and orange-stair level signals and go straight to red, because, while he may be signaling to his owners faster than a catcher behind home plate, we humans are not tuned in to read these small, precise, quick movements—we’re all about verbal communication). The dog learns that if he growls, it makes people go away, so he uses that method over and over, especially if human beings don’t respond to his lower-level, more polite “green” signals. If a dog feels nervous, fearful, anxious, or afraid and his green- and orange-stair signals are repeatedly ignored, the dog will escalate his response and go directly to red signals.

As you can see, a dog will normally go through many steps before getting to the point of snapping or attacking (unless someone has “punished the warning signs out of a dog,” which is when an owner gets upset if a dog turns away or gives a soft growl growls, and punishes the dog. This teaches dogs that sharing their feelings of fear or discomfort results in being yelled at, hit, or worse. As a result, they learn to skip the low-level warning signals and go straight to a bite in order to defend themselves.) It is our job as leaders to learn what our dog is trying to communicate and intervene when appropriate. A benevolent leader must always have his/her dog’s back. Your dog needs to learn to rely on you as the primary provider of safety and not feel the need to constantly protect you or himself. Lastly, it is your job to manage situations; if your dog shows any of the stress signals described above, take that as your cue to redirect his attention to a more familiar, calming activity like Sit, Watch Me, Heel, or Walk in the opposite direction.