Understanding what our dogs are telling us can be a very complicated process.   They use body language to a very great extent to communicate how they’re feeling, particularly if they’re feeling nervous or fearful in a situation. 

Did you know a wagging tail is not necessarily a sign that your dog is happy?  It could also mean that he’s concerned about something. There are entire books and lectures about this complicated subject but here are some more common signs that our dogs exhibit and a little more about what they may be telling you 

Yawning or Lip Licking – a big yawn when they’re not obviously tired or frequent licking of their lips when they haven’t had anything to eat or drink can be a sign that your dog is uncomfortable or concerned in this situation. 

Looking Away – Is your intentionally dog turning his head to avoid looking at something or someone? This could be a sign that he wants that certain thing or situation to go away. 

Closed or Tight Mouth – Does you dog look like she’s intentionally keeping her mouth closed and tight and firm?  She’s probably concerned about something. 

Scratching or Sniffing – Is your dog suddenly scratching for no apparent reason or sniffing himself?  These are common displacement behaviors that indicate your dog is in an uncomfortable situation and he’s trying to make himself feel a little less concerned.Body language example dog with family 

Here’s a great resource for other canine stress signals. 

If your dog is exhibiting some of these behaviors you need to remove either the dog or the object of their concern.  They need to be in a comfortable position where they are not stressed.  Certainly if you’re in a training session you should stop and let them relax a little.  You cannot successfully train a dog that is stressed. 

A good strategy is to observe your dog in different situations and write down what you see.  When they’re in a good and playful mood how do they hold their head, where are their ears, how are they holding their tail?  Is their body relaxed?  Now, observe your dog if they’re in an uncomfortable situation (e.g. maybe a visit to the vet).  How do they hold their head, their ears, and their tail?  Is their body stiff? 

In the photo to the right you can see a dog that is not comfortable in this situation.  This dog has a tense body, a lifted up front paw, ears pulled back and he probably would like to turn his head away if they actors were not holding his collar.  Please be aware of your dog’s body language and avoid putting them in stressful situations like this.  It’s uncomfortable for your dog and could result in someone (including the dog) getting hurt. 

Understanding dog body language can also be very helpful when you’re meeting a new dog or observing your dog in a new situation too.   With some practice you can better understand both your own dogs behavior and the other dog’s too. 

For more information, here’s a great article from Whole Dog Journal with more information on understanding your dog’s body language. 

Doggie Body LanguageFor a great one-page graphic of the Body Language of Fearful Dogs, go to Dr. Sophia Yin’s site to download a free document that will help you and your entire family better understand what your dog is telling you.