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Dog Body Language

Dogs are very expressive animals. They communicate when they're feeling happy, sad, nervous, fearful and angry, and they use their faces and bodies to convey much of this information. Dog body language is an elaborate and sophisticated system of nonverbal communication that, fortunately, we can learn to recognize and interpret. Once you learn how to “read” a dog's postures and signals, you'll better understand his feelings and motivations and be better able to predict what he's likely to do. These skills will enable you to interact with dogs with greater enjoyment and safety.

It helps to first learn about the various components that make up dog body language. Dogs use facial expressions, ear set, tail carriage and overall demeanor to signal their intentions and feelings to others. Breaking their body language down into components is helpful at first for building your observation and interpretation skills. Your goal, however, is to be able to observe the entire dog and the situation or context he's in, in order to accurately determine what he's trying to say. It's not possible to understand your dog's feelings and intentions by looking at just one aspect of his body language.

Dog Faces

Even though dogs' faces and heads come in many shapes and sizes, your dog's basic facial expressions can tell you a great deal about how he's feeling.

The Eyes

Your dog can, within limits, vary the shape and size of his eyes or the direction and intensity of his gaze. When your dog is relaxed and happy, his eyes will be their normal shape. Some dogs have round eyes, while others are more almond-shaped. Eyes that appear larger than normal usually indicate that a dog is feeling threatened in some way. He may be stressed by something or he may be frightened. An aggressive dog is also likely to have eyes that look larger than normal. If your dog's eyes seem smaller than they usually are, this can also mean he's feeling frightened or stressed. Dogs who are in pain or not feeling well often look as though they're squinting their eyes. Dogs who submissively grin (see below) may also squint their eyes.

The direction of your dog's gaze can also be telling. Dogs rarely look directly into each other's eyes because this is considered threatening behavior. Yet most dogs learn that it's okay, even pleasant, to look directly at people. A dog who looks at you with a relaxed facial expression is being friendly and hoping that you'll notice him. A dog who looks directly at you, actually staring at you with a tense facial expression, is another matter indeed. A direct stare is much more likely to be a threat, and if you're in close proximity to such a dog, it's wise to slowly look away. Looking away is what dogs do when they don't want to appear threatening. A dog who averts his gaze when you look at him is signalling that he's submissive. It can also indicate that he's worried about interacting with you. Maybe he's been scared of people in the past, and so he isn't very confident about dealing with people now.

If your dog doesn't look directly at you, but instead looks out of the corners of his eyes so that you see a good deal of the whites of his eyes (the sclera), he might be leading up to an aggressive outburst. Known as “whale eye” this is often seen when a dog is guarding a chew bone, toy or favorite spot. It's different than the eye of a dog who, for instance, is resting with his head and opens his eyes to give you a sideways glance. In this case, he won't appear rigid or tense, and you won't see much of the whites of his eyes.

The Mouth

Dogs do a lot more with their mouths than just eat and drink. Even though they can't use their mouths to talk, the way they position their lips, jaws and teeth speaks volumes. When your dog is relaxed and happy, he's likely to have his mouth closed or slightly opened. If his mouth is open, he may be panting-this is how dogs cool their bodies. You might see his teeth because his mouth is slightly opened.

A dog who's frightened or feeling submissive probably has his mouth closed. His lips might be pulled back slightly at the corners. He might flick his tongue in and out, or he might lick if he's interacting with a person or another animal. When he's feeling uptight, he might yawn in an exaggerated fashion.

Some dogs show a “submissive grin” when they're feeling extremely submissive. They pull their lips up vertically and display their front teeth (canines and incisors). This signal is almost always accompanied by an overall submissive body posture, such as a lowered head, yelping or whining, and squinty eyes. Only some dogs “grin” this way. People sometimes mistakenly think a dog is being aggressive when, in fact, he's grinning submissively and trying to communicate the exact opposite of aggression.

A dog who's signalling his intention to act aggressively will often retract his lips to expose his teeth. He may pull his lips up vertically to display his front teeth while also wrinkling the top of his muzzle. This is typical of a dog who's warning you not to come any closer.

A dog may draw his lips back horizontally so that his lips are really tight at the commissure (the corners of the mouth). With this expression, you're more likely to see both his front and back teeth (premolars and molars). This posture is often indicative of a dog who's feeling afraid. However, once a dog is ready to bite, he usually pulls his lips up AND back so that his mouth is open and his teeth are exposed.

Dogs can display an “aggressive pucker.” They move their lips forward over their teeth and exhale air so that their lips look puffy and large. You can sometimes even hear them breathing heavily. This display is often accompanied by a wrinkled forehead. A dog who looks like this is saying, “Don't come any closer.”